How Gianfranco Zola must be starting to hate the sight of Arsenal. In his seven years in Chelsea's midfield, the diminutive Italian never once tasted success against Arsène Wenger's team in 12 appearances.
Yesterday, as West Ham's manager, that sequence continued, though his team played their part in a gripping encounter that was settled by an own goal and a stoppage-time Emanuel Adebayor special.
Although there was probably more at stake at Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane, West Ham knew that victory would push them to within a point of the Gunners, but they were forced into four changes through injury and illness. On the plus side, Craig Bellamy made his first home start for over a year, following a remarkable seventh knee operation, and Lee Bowyer was back after a two-month absence to add bite to the midfield.
Arsenal made three changes of their own from that rampant Champions League win in Turkey, the most unexpected of which was Emanuel Adebayor's relegation to the substitutes' bench, presumably to keep him fresh for Wednesday's heavyweight clash with Spurs.
With both teams committed to pass and move, an entertaining game unfolded and it was West Ham who had the better of the early exchanges, a flying tip-over save by Manuel Almunia keeping out David di Michele's 25-yard drive inside the first 10 minutes. It was not long, however, before Arsenal put together a period of sustained pressure, using the pace of Theo Walcott, who thumped an effort against the woodwork after a surging run from the halfway line.
Another Arsenal move ended with Robert Green appearing to handle the ball outside the box. But the Hammers keeper got away with it and moments later saved brilliantly from Walcott after Robin Van Persie expertly chested the ball down into the path of the dangerous England winger.
What a story it would have been had Bellamy managed to open the score at the other end. Instead, after bursting on to Scott Parker's pin-point pass on 28 minutes, his shot cannoned off Almunia's outstretched leg and the ball ballooned on to the top of the net.
The first half was a tale of two keepers as Green plunged full-length to deflect away a snap-shot by Niklas Bendtner. But West Ham had a good balance about them, Carlton Cole leading the line with authority and giving William Gallas plenty to think about.
Aston Villa's handsome win at Wigan meant Arsenal knew they would spin out of the top four if they were defeated. Cue, after 67 minutes, a double substitution by Wenger who sent on Abou Diaby and Adebayor, yet took off Walcott who had been the main threat and moments before had set up Van Persie to rifle in a shot that was cleared off the line. As the decibel level rose, so Arsenal turned up the heat. The deadlock was broken on 74 minutes. Adebayor's shot seemed to be going wide, but Julien Faubert stuck out a leg deflecting the ball past his own keeper.
Green then produced a blinding stop to prevent Adebayor scoring, but it hardly mattered. In the final minute, Arsenal broke clear and their No1 marksman settled the game.
West Ham (4-3-3): Green; Faubert, Collins, Upson, Ilunga; Mullins, Parker (Boa Morte, 77), Bowyer (Sears, 89); Di Michele (Etherington, 77), Cole, Bellamy. Substitutes not used: Lastuvka (gk), Lopez, Davenport, Collison.
Arsenal (4-4-2) Almunia; Eboue, Gallas, Silvestre, Clichy; Walcott (Adebayor, 67), Fabregas, Song, Nasri (Diaby 67); Van Persie (Sagna, 92), Bendtner
Booked: West Ham: Parker, Faubert. Arsenal: Fabregas, Clichy, Song. Sent Off: West Ham: Cole.
Referee: Phil Dowd (Staffs).
Man of the match: Silvestre.