Saturday, 31 January 2009

Smell The Atmosphere

West Ham United have completed the signing of Czech Republic midfielder Radoslav Kovac on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a possible permanent transfer believed to be in the region of £4million. The imposing 6'3 Kovac, who has been handed the No14 shirt, is equally adept at playing in central defence. He joins from Russian giants Spartak Moscow, where he was the captain. The 29-year-old, who played at the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008, is vastly experienced and caught the eye at Wembley last August when the Czechs more than held their own in the 2-2 friendly draw with England. He is set to play for his country in next month's friendly against Morocco, having appeared in their last World Cup qualifier back in November.

At club level, Kovac has also played 14 games in the UEFA Champions League, with one goal, as well as gaining UEFA Cup experience. "I've spent four great years at Spartak but now it's time for a change," the midfielder told Spartak's website today, before stressing that he was unlikely to be lonely in England. "I have the phone numbers of my former Spartak team mates (Manchester United defender) Nemanja Vidic and (Tottenham Hotspur striker) Roman Pavlyuchenko so I can get in touch with them in England."

Gianfranco Zola said: "I am pleased to have Radoslav here. He has a lot of experience with the national team and he will give us competition in a midfield which is already very strong. I am sure he will help us with what we are trying to achieve this season."

Kovac arrived at the Boleyn Ground on Friday to finalise the deal and have a medical. He watched his new team-mates being put through their paces by Gianfranco Zola, Steve Clarke and Kevin Keen. Negotiations were completed on Friday evening to allow him to join a strong Czech contingent at the club following goalkeepers Marek Stech and Jan Lastuvka, along with Ludek Miklosko.

West Ham United CEO Scott Duxbury said: "I am delighted we have managed to secure the services of a proven international like Radoslav ahead of interest from clubs at home and abroad. He brings considerable quality and will fit right into Gianfranco Zola's talented squad. The deal is such that the manager will be able to sign him permanently in the summer if he so wishes."

Elsewhere, West Ham have confirmed midfielder Julien Faubert is discussing a loan move to Real Madrid. The Hammers gave the Frenchman permission to talk to the Spanish champions after he struggled to secure a sustained run in the first team this season. He is due in the Spanish capital for a medical after a loan fee of £1.5million was agreed. Real's coach, Juande Ramos, has turned to Faubert after turning down Jermaine Pennant and failing to land Wigan's Antonio Valencia.

West Ham signed Faubert from Bordeaux for £6.1m in the summer of 2007 but the Frenchman tore his achilles tendon in a pre-season match only weeks later, an injury which kept him out of action for over six months. Faubert has made 24 appearances this season and has proved himself versatile, regularly making the switch between right-back and right midfield. Ramos reportedly regarded Faubert as a last option after hopes of a more expensive deal faded.

Chief executive Scott Duxbury told the club's website: "Julien has struggled to get into Gianfranco Zola's team this season - and despite the high hopes we had for him when he joined us 18 months ago, he has not had the best of times. He had asked the manager about a possible move, and we felt it right to let him talk to Real Madrid. If it does not happen then we will, of course, welcome Julien back into the squad. I was first contacted by Madrid on Friday morning - and after extensive negotiations, we have agreed in principle a deal that would see them paying us a £1.5million fee to take Julien until the end of the season. His long-term future would then be reviewed in the summer, with a significant transfer fee payable should Madrid want to take up their option. If Julien does go on loan, then we will look to quickly bring in a replacement."

Also on the way out could be Calum Daveport. Several papers today report that Wolves are set to complete the £3million signing of West Ham's unsettled defender. The 25-year-old, whose move to Bolton fell through two weeks ago, is desperate to leave Upton Park after falling out of favour with Hammers boss Gianfranco Zola. Birmingham and Cardiff have also been linked with the former Coventry man, but Wolves boss Mick McCarthy is ready to offer him a three-year deal at Molineux.

With the transfer window set to slam shut in a matter of days, optimism abounds at United. January was supposed to be a month of asset-stripping at Upton Park but instead it has been a time of bounty and reward as West Ham continue to prosper under Gianfranco Zola’s management. "Life has started again for us," said Zola. "It has been a great month and I believe that is because of all the things we went through in October. Because of that we are now strong mentally, physically and technically. It is good because we are building something important. You can sense that and smell the atmosphere around the club."

Matthew Upson can certainly sense it. The defender has blossomed into a full England international at West Ham, a far cry from his frustrations as a youngster when he failed to break through under Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. He joined the Gunners from Luton but made just 35 appearances before being allowed to leave, for Birmingham. Wenger has admitted he remains an admirer of the central defender, and was linked with a transfer window move for the player, now 29.

Upson could be forgiven for criticising Wenger's policy now, having been allowed to leave, but instead he offered praise for the Frenchman's style. "Arsene's recruitment of young players is second to none," Upson said. "He is the master at it and has brought a lot of young players from nowhere into that team and they have gone on to become top players. That is such a great boost for a football club because financially they can bring a player in for next to nothing. It's very impressive. I learnt from the training every day [at Arsenal]. There were so many top players there at the time so you take good habits from all of them."

Upson is now expected to sign a new three-year deal this summer after renewed interest from today’s opponents was rebuffed in recent weeks. Speaking to the media last night last night he revealed he snubbed the chance to go back to Arsenal because the future is brighter at West Ham. The England defender was happy to pledge his loyalty to Upton Park even though big guns have reportedly been circling in the transfer window. Gunners boss Arsene Wenger inquired about Upson, who he sold for £3m in 2003, but was knocked back by West Ham despite their financial problems.

It was an admission by Wenger that he made a mistake by letting Upson go and it looks an even worse piece of business now as Arsenal's defensive frailties are the reason why their Champions League status is in danger. Unlike Craig Bellamy, who fled Upton Park as soon as Manchester City came calling, Upson said he wanted to be a part of what Gianfranco Zola is trying to build. He will be desperate to prove his point against his former club today, having become an England regular under Fabio Capello.

"There was speculation about me leaving," admitted Upson. "But I was always confident I was stopping around. The club pointed out their intentions at the start of the transfer window and, to be fair to them, they've pretty much stuck with them, which is impressive. It shows there is an intention for success at the club and as long as there is that here, I'm enjoying myself and all the other players are and I think the manager is too. There's nothing like a few wins to get everyone smiling, and especially at home. But we have the same thoughts we would have with any away game." Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Hull confirmed West Ham’s resurgence in form and confidence with four wins out of the last five Premier League games. That has raised Zola’s stock but now comes a test of resolve with today’s trip to Arsenal followed by the visit of Manchester United next weekend. "There is no reason why we shouldn’t go there and take something from it," said Upson. "We’re ready for it."

As United move across London to the Emirates today Gianfranco Zola insists he is looking forward to pitting his wits against one of the managers he most looks up to at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday. After two consecutive 2-0 wins against Hartlepool United and Hull City, Zola believes there is no better place to see just how far the Hammers have come under his stewardship. "I think the players right now feel they can go out and compete with Arsenal, even away. That is great. I'm looking forward to this game and it is one of those games where everything will come out," Zola said. "I said it last time they were here, that he [Arsene Wenger] is one of the mangers I look up to. The way he manages is like what we want to do over here as well. We want to develop the players we have got and make them better. We want to achieve success by doing that."

Like the West Ham manager, Wenger has demonstrated his commitment to blooding youngsters in the Barclays Premier League and the Sardinian belies it offers a viable alternative to spending vast sums on more established players. "It is more or less the same way as we are doing here," Zola said. "There are two ways. You can either spend £200m and get top class players and win titles like that or another way you go around and get young players and develop them to build up your team. It takes longer but that is the way I prefer to build up a team."

Zola, who is expected to name the same squad that beat Hull City on Wednesday, must decide whether to field Savio, the latest recruit to his project in north London, or stick with the in-form forward line that has served him so well in recent weeks. It is a choice he admits to being happy to face. "It is a nice problem to have. My way to select them is they select themselves. The way they play, the way they perform. The players know that the best one will play. The one that does well will be in the team."

Although Arsenal are currently sit eight point behind leaders Manchester United at the summit, Zola is sure that his French counterpart will turn the current Gunners' crop into title contenders before long. "Arsenal are very talented but young. I'm sure they will become a winning team but they need time to improve because the Premier League is a tough place to be a winner in. What he has done for the club is a great thing and he keeps bringing in very good players. Nowadays, it is not easy to compete with teams like Manchester United and Chelsea, even for Arsenal. Personally I believe he is doing a great job. I like the project they are bringing forward and Arsene Wenger is doing well and sooner or later he will get the team winning again."

The last time James Collins turned out at the Emirates Stadium, on 7 April 2007, West Ham United secured a heroic 1-0 victory on the way to their 'Great Escape' from Barclays Premier League relegation. Since then, the Wales international defender had endured a frustrating period, spending ten months battling back to full fitness after suffering a serious knee ligament injury in a reserve team fixture at Portsmouth in January 2008. Now, the 25-year-old is back in the Hammers team and at the top of his game.

Preparing to return to the scene of that memorable afternoon 21 months ago, Collins believes Gianfranco Zola's in-form side have every chance of extending their six-match unbeaten run away from home in north London. "Of course if we play the way we did in the first half against Fulham and go there with the right attitude I think we can give them a good game. We beat them there a couple of years ago and there's no reason why we can't do it again. I think this is the highest I can remember confidence being in my time at the club. Obviously playing games gives you confidence and that's what I'm doing at the minute. I've been a bit unfortunate the last few seasons with injury but I'm playing now and that builds confidence. I'm playing in a great team. Everyone's playing good football and it's a pleasure to be involved in."

Collins insists the Hammers' recent success can be put down to the hard work the players and coaching staff are putting in every day on the training pitch. Manager Zola and first-team coaches Steve Clarke and Kevin Keen are using all their know-how to give United the best possible chance of picking up points in every single match - including Saturday's match at Arsenal. "We split it up in training. We have certain days when we do defending and certain days when we do attacking. It's not just the back-four that are defending well. It is the whole team that is chipping in. The boys are defending from the front. It's a group effort all over the pitch and I think that shows. We're playing football the West Ham way and we're getting results."

The defender, who arrived at the Boleyn Ground from Cardiff City in July 2005, is also quick to heap praise on his team-mates, including central defensive partner Matthew Upson and West Ham United and Wales team-mate Jack Collison. "I think we [myself and Matthew] both complement each others' game quite well. We're both half-decent on the ball and are both aggressive players. From a personal point of view it's just great being back in the team and performing well and I'm just looking forward to every game. Jack has been brilliant. I saw him early doors away with the Under-21s with Wales and the quality he was showing there. To come here and train and be given his chance by Mister, he is showing his class. Hopefully he's working in a good midfield with Valon [Behrami], Scotty [Parker] and Mark [Noble] and all of them are putting in good performances. Long may it continue."

Speaking of Collison, the first time he pulled on a West Ham United shirt at the Emirates Stadium he was an unknown 19-year-old making his Premier League debut. Today, the midfielder will return to Arsenal as a regular in Gianfranco Zola's in-form side and a full Wales international. Now a relative veteran of 15 league and FA Cup appearances, Collison is confident that Zola's team can gain revenge for the 2-0 defeat they suffered on his first ever appearance in claret and blue. With United on a seven-match unbeaten run in all competitions and having not tasted defeat on their travels since 29 October, that confidence is well-founded.

"We're on a really good run of results and we don't want to stop that. We've had good results away at Liverpool [drawing 0-0] and Chelsea [drawing 1-1] this season and we're going to look to go one better and get all three points at Arsenal. I don't see any reason, playing the way we are at the moment, why we can't do that."

Collison was one of a whole host of players who produced the goods during Wednesday evening's home victory over Phil Brown's Tigers. The 20-year-old was involved in many of the hosts' best moments, including a flowing 40th-minute move that saw him crash David Di Michele's cross against the post - one of four occasions on which the Hammers hit the woodwork. While the team's performance left the home supporters leaving the Boleyn Ground purring with pleasure, a typically modest Collison insisted there was more to come from him and his team-mates. The youngster also reserved praise for manager Zola and his coaching staff for the exciting, entertaining brand of football the team is now producing on a regular basis.

"It was a good performance, but I thought we were superb a couple of weeks ago against Fulham. Obviously it's nice when you're playing well, getting results and really pushing up the table and looking ahead of us. The manager and his staff have come in with their ideas and the boys have adapted and there is a real buzz about the place at the moment. Every time we go out on the pitch we are confident and feel like we can take points out of every game we play in." That confidence is clear not only in Collison but also his midfield cohorts Scott Parker, Mark Noble and Valon Behrami. The quartet have started six of the last seven Premier League matches, with Noble's absence from the 2-1 win over Stoke City the only time during that span when the group has not all been involved from the kick-off.

Collison believes that continuity has been key to the understanding the four now have in each others' games. The youngster also alluded to the belief that manager Zola has instilled in them both individually and collectively, belief that has seen Parker in imperious form in front of the back-four and Noble, Behrami and Collison himself all find themselves on the score-sheet in recent weeks. "The midfield has been brilliant. It's been quite settled over the past few weeks and that's made a difference. The manager has given us the freedom to go out there and express ourselves and that's given us confidence. It's made a really big difference. When you've got experienced players like Scotty Parker in there and then the youth of myself, Nobes and Valon, it's working well for the team."

Arsenal (from): Almunia, Sagna, Toure, Gallas, Clichy, Nasri, Denilson, Song, Eboue, Adebayor, van Persie, Fabianski, Djourou, Diaby, Vela, Ramsey, Bendtner, Gibbs, Wilshere.

West Ham (from): Green, Neill, Collins, Upson, Ilunga, Behrami, Parker, Collison, Noble, Di Michele, Cole, Lastuvka, Nsereko, Tristan, Tomkins, Sears, Faubert, Boa Morte.

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