Jesse Lingard continued his stunning form with West Ham by scoring twice in the first half to set the Hammers on course for a crucial victory over fellow Champions League hopefuls Leicester City.
The two sides came into the weekend occupying the last two Champions League spots, before wins for Chelsea and Liverpool on Saturday nudged West Ham down to sixth place.
But David Moyes’ men showed they are up for the challenge of qualifying for Europe’s top club competition for the first time, climbing back into fourth after hanging on as Leicester rallied late on.
The Hammers took the lead as Arthur Masuaku’s cross went through to right-back Vladimir Coufal, who cut back for Lingard to sweep the ball inside Kasper Schmeichel’s near post from the edge of the box.
Jarrod Bowen then beat the offside trap to race on to Issa Diop’s long ball and square for Lingard to tap into an empty net for his eighth goal in nine Premier League games since arriving on loan from Manchester United.
The 28-year-old forward, whose recent form earned him an England recall, then played a part in West Ham’s third goal right after half-time as Bowen poked in from Tomas Soucek’s pass to round off a clinical team move.
Kelechi Iheanacho pulled a goal back to give the visitors hope, before grabbing his 11th goal in 11 games in stoppage time, but the Hammers held on to ensure they did not surrender a 3-0 lead for the second straight home game and move within a point of third-placed Leicester.
With Declan Rice set to be out until May, club captain Mark Noble has returned to the Hammers’ midfield at a pivotal stage of the season.
The 33-year-old led by example during Monday’s 3-2 win at Wolves and did so again during his 400th Premier League game for West Ham – and his 524th in all competitions – before going off after injuring his wrist making a desperate block late on.
The Hammers were a Championship side when Noble made his league debut in January 2005. Now they could finish in the top four of English football’s top flight for the first time since 1985-86.
The man known as ‘Mr West Ham’ signed a one-year extension in March, saying he will leave at the end of 2021-22, and said before Sunday’s game that he is relishing the prospect of playing Champions League football in his 18th and final season with the club.
The graft of a long-serving club servant has long been admired at West Ham, but it is the guile of short-term signing Lingard that has thrust them into top-four contention.
A poor lay-off by Coufal denied him the chance of scoring another goal in the first half, while Lingard crossed for Diop to head home after the break, only to see it disallowed for offside.
It seems it is no longer a question of whether Lingard will make England’s European Championship squad this summer, but whether he will start.
Lingard’s only league goal last season came as Manchester United dashed Leicester’s Champions League hopes on the final day. Helping West Ham make the top four this time round would surely make England manager Gareth Southgate’s mind up.
Leicester’s preparations were dealt a blow as James Maddison, Hamza Choudhury and Ayoze Perez were left out for breaching Covid-19 protocols, and the Foxes were lacklustre for the first hour.
West Ham’s opener was the result of some patient build-up play, but then Leicester only had themselves to blame as they were made to pay for playing a high line for the second goal and being dispossessed in their own half for the third.
Ricardo Pereira caught the Hammers in possession to give Iheanacho the chance to fire in from the edge of the box and, shortly after six minutes of stoppage time was indicated, the Nigeria striker scored again following a low cross by substitute Marc Albrighton.
Leicester almost salvaged a point as Wesley Fofana headed wide at the death but it was another quiet afternoon for top scorer Jamie Vardy. After a blistering start to the season, he has now scored once in his past 18 games.
The Foxes are eager to avoid another late-season collapse and their next three home games are against West Brom, Crystal Palace and Newcastle, but they will need Vardy to help ease the burden on Iheanacho, 24, who is enjoying the longest run of Premier League starts in his career.