Friday, 28 September 2007

Healthy Respect

The Hammers have won the last two matches at Upton Park, against Middlesbrough in the Premier League and Plymouth in the Carling Cup, while Arsenal are looking for their fifth straight win to keep their two point lead at the top of the table. The Gunners are unbeaten in 17 matches in all competitions, since they lost to West Ham at the Emirates in April. Alan Curbishley is gearing up for the clash buoyed by the fact the Irons did the double over Arsenal last season, but also in the belief that Arsene Wenger's side are a very different prospect this campaign.

"There were so many games where they did great but missed chances," he said. "This year they look a lot more direct. They have changed things around, not so much in the way they attack getting into the box, but they have been more forceful in front of goal. Perhaps they have looked at some criticisms of them and done more about it. They've got a different make up to their team. The average age of the Arsenal side that played against Newcastle in the Carling Cup was about 20 or 21. They're a young team and they're growing together. We've not seen enough of them yet this season to see what their weaknesses are. We'll have to see as the season progresses because it's a long old season. No one here is going into the game thinking (Arsenal) are invincible. What sums up football is what Plymouth did to us on Wednesday. They came and gave us a really good game."

West Ham captain Lucas Neill is playing the innocent when asked if strong-arm tactics, as displayed against Arsenal by his old side Blackburn over the seasons, might be in order to stop the Premier League leaders at Upton Park. Neill was in the Blackburn line-up castigated by Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger for kicking his men off the park in the 2005 FA Cup semi-final, but the Hammers skipper insists he has tempered his outlook. "You have to approach it in the right manner and try to play with a tempo," he said. "We have to close them down. If we give them time (on the ball) they will absolutely ruin us. So, yes, we have to be up in their faces. But I'd call it a West Ham working performance. I wouldn't call it the Blackburn way." Neill had the satisfaction of winning for West Ham at the Emirates last season. "We beat them 1-0, although if it had been a boxing match, we'd have had to throw the towel in," he admitted. "We ground it out and stuck together. But you always know against Arsenal you can have them for 89 minutes, then they only need one flash of brilliance from one of any number of their players and that's it."

At least West Ham have the benefit of Arsenal old boy Freddie Ljungberg's knowledge about his old team to help them this time. West Ham boss Alan Curbishley said: "Arsene Wenger didn't want to let Freddie go, but Freddie wanted a new challenge. We've had a chat with him about one or two things, we're aware of some of the things we might try and about what Arsenal like to do. But we need a passionate start and see where it takes us. Players always enjoy taking on their old clubs and Freddie will be no different. Lucas Neill added: "Ljungberg has been giving his team-mates an extra gee-up in training as he is so desperate to beat his former club. Freddie has made sure everyone has been having a good week in training. He’s been useful because he’s been able to tell us about Arsenal’s movement."

Both managers have a healthy respect for the players they will face this weekend. Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas has started the season in blistering form and Curbishley is well aware of the threat he will pose. "Over the last year he's come to the fore for Arsenal and he has become a major force," said the Hammers boss. "For someone so young he shows maturity beyond his years. We're aware of the things he can do."
Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger admits to being a long term fan of Dean Ashton - and he sees no reason why the West Ham striker cannot do a job for England. Steve McClaren has something of a selection poser in attack for the forthcoming Euro 2008 qualifiers against Estonia and Russia, with Michael Owen and Emile Heskey currently sidelined by injury. Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney is now fit following his broken metatarsal and is expected to come straight back into the side, but just who plays alongside him is open to debate. Liverpool frontman Peter Crouch, Andy Johnson, Jermain Defoe, Darren Bent and Ashton - now back among the goals for the Hammers - are all likely to be on McClaren's mind. Ashton, 23, had been set to make his full England debut against Greece in August 2006, only to break an ankle training with the national side and miss the best part of a year.

The powerfully-built striker maintains he is "ready for England" - and Wenger, who takes his table-toppers to West Ham tomorrow, believes it would be on merit. "When he was at Crewe, they played against us in the FA Youth Cup and he was outstanding," he recalled. "I tried to get him here, but they had an agreement with Liverpool. Ashton is an intelligent player and uses his body well and is good in the air. We were looking at the time for someone who could give us something a bit different and help us play slightly more direct if needed, and we felt he could develop into that sort of player. After, he went to Norwich and that was a surprise because suddenly he would not join us." Wenger added: "In my opinion, yes [he can play for England]. Certainly he will be involved now because you have Owen and Heskey out. The problem for Dean Ashton was he was injured for a long time. He showed a lot of character to come back. I would not be surprised to see Steve McClaren in the stand tomorrow."

On the team news front,
Scott Parker has recovered from his knee injury and is in contention for a place in the squad after playing in the Hammers' Carling Cup win over Plymouth in midweek. Craig Bellamy is back in training after his groin injury and Freddie Ljungberg could be up against up against his former club. In fact, with many members of the West Ham United squad returning to full fitness, there are a few selection issues to ponder. "Freddie is fit, Scott Parker too and Craig Bellamy is back in full training so I've got a bit of thinking to do," admitted Curbishley. "Apart from that, Bobby Zamora is out as he has just had a knee injury and we are still without Julien Faubert and Kieron Dyer, who are long terms injuries. Calum Davenport is recovering from his calf injury and Nigel Quashie has been out since the Spurs game with a injured foot but both are back in training." Arsenal midfielder Alexander Hleb faces a late fitness test, while Tomas Rosicky (hamstring), William Gallas (groin), Jens Lehmann (elbow) and Alex Song (calf) are all ruled out.

Last five meetings in the Premier League:

07/04/2007 Arsenal 0 West Ham United 1 (Zamora, 45)
05/11/2007 West Ham United 1 (Harewood, 89) Arsenal 0
01/02/2006 Arsenal 2 (Henry, 45, Pires, 89) West Ham United 3 (Reo-Coker, 25, Zamora, 32, Etherington, 80)
24/09/2005 West Ham United 0 Arsenal 0
21/09/2003 Arsenal 3 (Henry, 14pen, 71, 86) West Ham United 1 (Defoe, 40)

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