Defensive frailties cost Town dear

FAILURE to defend at set-pieces cost Ipswich Town dearly yet again as they failed at the final hurdle to reach the play-off final, writes Derek Davis.This time the strike force did not come to the rescue after Matthew Etherington and Christian Dailly had overturned Town's one-goal first leg advantage.

FAILURE to defend at set-pieces cost Ipswich Town dearly yet again as they failed at the final hurdle to reach the play-off final, writes Derek Davis.

This time the strike force did not come to the rescue after Matthew Etherington and Christian Dailly had overturned Town's one-goal first leg advantage.

Both goals came from corners, which was even more galling after the defending in open play had been quite magnificent.

Darren Bent rued an early chance he scorned, while Ian Westlake hit a post with a volley in the last minute of normal time.

There was even a claim for a penalty after a push on Matt Elliott, but nothing was given.

All season long the Blues have been punished for lapses of concentration, especially at set-pieces and last night failure hurt more than ever.

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John McGreal lost his fight for fitness after picking up a strain in the 1-0 first leg win, so Richard Naylor dropped into central defence and Shefki Kuqi took his place up front.

Alun Armstrong, who has not figured in the first team since he went on as a substitute at Derby County last November, was on the bench at the expense of 17-year-old Dean Bowditch and came on at half time for Kuqi.

The Hammers' starting line-up was unchanged from the side that lost at Portman Road on Saturday with Tomas Repka surprisingly keeping his place, while fit-again Rufus Brevett was on the bench.

This was little doubt West Ham expected to go through, despite the first leg deficit. The programme printed the ticket arrangements for the final, while a press release outlined the details for Alan Pardew's pre-Cardiff address to the media.

Their confidence turned out to be justified, although Ipswich played their part in a thrilling game.

The 5,200 travelling Town fans filled the Centenary Stand and made their presence known although not many of the 30,000 Hammers supporters did not join in a spine-tingling version of I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles just before the teams came out to a hunting horn, ticker tape and fireworks.

A pre-match live version of Nessun Dorma and the acclaimed Hammerettes added to the big-match occasion.

Just two minutes into the game and Bent had a wonderful chance to burst the Irons' bubble when he sprinted clean through on to a Westlake through ball but dragged his 14-yard shot wide across goal.

Marlon Harewood threatened immediately after, with a strong run and shot from 20 yards which flew high.

Steve Lomas was much closer with a volley two minutes later which clipped the top of the crossbar.

The half continued at a frantic pace and Kelvin Davis made arguably his save of the season with a world- class one-handed stop to deny a Bobby Zamora header from seven yards central to goal.

The Town keeper was put under pressure with a strong back pass by Naylor and was forced to concede a corner. Elliott also showed great faith in the Town stopper with a difficult ball and it was sliced away.

Davis made another tremendous save from a 30-yard drive from Hammers' skipper Dailly which looked bound for the top corner until the keeper sprang to his right and pushed it away.

Zamora then went very close with a downward header – and all that in the first 20 breathtaking minutes.

Town were given a brief respite when Repka fouled Kuqi and Jim Magilton delivered a long free-kick into the area.

It went out as far as Jermaine Wright, but his 16-yard volley was held by Stephen Bywater.

Dailly then blocked a Bent drive, and Bywater spilled a cross from the same striker.

Matt Richards intercepted a loose Harewood pass and sprinted 35 yards with the ball before feeding Kuqi, who won a corner, and Elliott's far-post header was not far away.

The Town bright spell quietened the Cockneys and the Blues fans were in good voice, especially when Bent went close but was stretching to reach a deep cross.

Just like on Saturday Fabian Wilnis denied the Hammers' player of the year Etherington, who just could not get past the Dutchman, and nor could David Connolly when he tried. Wilnis was booked for handball when he claimed it hit his knee and Michael Carrick curled the 25-yard free-kick over the bar.

Naylor, Elliott and Richards all put in telling tackles at vital moments to deny the Iron, who threw everything at the Blues, in a pulsating first half, which ended goalless but matched the quality and excitement of the same spell in the first leg.

Even the ball-boys were up for it, reacting sharply to supply the Hammers for quick throw-ins then later slowing the return when Ipswich needed the ball.

It was always going to take something special to breach the Town defence in this mood and West Ham's breakthrough came four minutes into the second half. A short corner by Carrick was picked up by Etherington, who escaped Westlake, before hitting a tremendous left-footed shot from 18-yards which whizzed past Davis into his top right hand corner.

Bent had the chance for an instant reply when Wright picked him out but he chose to try to find Armstrong instead of going for goal and the pass was cut out.

Town were undone again by a corner when Etherington's flag kick fell for Dailly, who stabbed in when the Blues failed to clear, although they were furious at referee Neale Barry.

The Blues tried everything to get back, even playing Elliott as a forward for the last 10 minutes. But it was to no avail.

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