West Ham are one step away from returning to the Premier League after easing their way into the Championship play-off final with an emphatic victory over Cardiff City. Goals from Kevin Nolan, Ricardo Vaz Tê and Nicky Maynard enabled Sam Allardyce's side to improve on their first-leg victory and complete a 5-0 aggregate triumph. West Ham will take on either Blackpool or Birmingham City at Wembley on 19 May and will begin as strong favourites after a pair of semi-final performances worthy of the most expensive squad in the second tier.
Anticipating an early onslaught from a Cardiff side eager to atone for their tame showing in the first leg, Allardyce resolved to fight fire with fire and deployed a highly attacking formation. With the nominal full-backs, Guy Demel and Matt Taylor, acting as invading wingers, the home side were able to pack the centre of midfield and suppress any notions the visitors had of creating an historic comeback. No team had ever overturned a two-goal deficit in the play-off semi-finals and Cardiff's task was made even more daunting in the 14th minute when Nolan nodded into the net from close range.
Carlton Cole had seemed set to score but his misdirected header from Taylor's corner went up in the air and Nolan reacted quicker than anyone else to complete the job. The goal was just reward for West Ham's dominance, even if Cardiff could have been given a penalty in the 10th minute when Kenny Miller crumpled to the ground under an awkward challenge by Winston Reid.
West Ham had no intention of relenting and within two minutes of Nolan's goal they almost scored another, Gary O'Neil finding space in the Cardiff box to meet a Jack Collison cross and hook a shot over David Marshall, only for it to hit the crossbar.
With West Ham lording it in midfield Cardiff could seldom supply Miller and Joe Mason with worthwhile service. West Ham came close to embellishing their lead on the half-hour when Vaz Tê skittered down the right and cut the ball back to O'Neil, whose curling shot from the edge of the area forced a fine save from Marshall. As the Upton Park faithful began serenading their side's superiority with joyous shouts of olé, Vaz Tê made it 4-0 on aggregate just before half-time, collecting a splendid pass by Demel to smash a cross shot into the top corner from 14 yards.
West Ham's preparations for Wembley suffered a blow early in the second period when Collison sustained a shoulder injury in a challenge with Ben Turner and had to be replaced. His participation in the final is in doubt. Collison's misfortune sent a warning to the other West Ham players, whose minimal exertions through the rest of the game suggested they were preserving themselves for Wembley. They still contained Cardiff with little ado and increased their winning margin late on when the substitute Nicky Maynard arrowed the ball into the top corner from 18 yards on the stroke of full-time.
This was the third consecutive Cardiff campaign that concluded with play-off elimination. Cardiff may have run Liverpool close in this season's Carling Cup final but their performance in this semi-final showed they have much to do before next season if they are finally to earn the right to face such clubs on a regular basis.