Friday, 6 February 2009

Hostilities resumed

Gianfranco Zola has called on his West Ham United team to go out and beat Premier League leaders Manchester United on Sunday. The Hammers manager has guided his players through an eight-match unbeaten run in all competitions and believes they have both the confidence and ability to upset Sir Alex Ferguson's side. The Red Devils have won their last seven league matches and kept 12 consecutive clean sheets - allowing goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar to set an English record of 1,122 minutes without conceding a goal - but Zola insists he will not be sending his team out with a defensive mindset.

"I never play for a point not even when we played at Arsenal," Zola told the official site. "I went there to try and win the game but at the end they forced us to defend a lot because they are a good team and we'll have the same attitude against United. We play at home and we want to win the game. The approach will be that. We will see what the momentum [of the game] will be. We will try to get the momentum on our side otherwise we might need to defend but the idea is to win the game."

While Manchester United are top of the Premier League form table with a maximum 18 points from their last six fixtures, the Hammers are tucked in just behind with 14, having won four times and drawn twice. With both teams producing superb performances and results in recent weeks, Zola is expecting a closely-fought yet entertaining game of football at the Boleyn Ground. "It's certainly a game where there are two teams who are in very good form playing each other and that makes the game even more interesting. I'm really looking forward to this game. We will try [to beat them] but it will not be easy because right now they are very strong but we are confident and are playing good football and the players are determined to continue on this way. It will be an interesting game. I'm sure that if Manchester United wants to get away with this then they have to play their own best. I'm sure that our own players will be very happy for it."

The Hammers have brushed aside the challenge of Portsmouth, Stoke City, Fulham and Hull City since Christmas, while also securing creditable draws at Newcastle United and Arsenal. Zola puts his team's fine run down to the confidence instilled in his players by their recent performances and results. "Certainly confidence helps and when you play with your own confidence everything comes together very well and it's one of the factors that is making a big difference for us. The players are really improving and enjoying what they are doing and that is making a big difference."

Another major influence has been that of first-team coach Steve Clarke and his fellow support staff. In typically modest style, the manager paid tribute to the hard work done by those working off the pitch to improve his team's chances on it. "Steve is a great man and I have always considered him one of the most important parts in the job I was doing and I told the club I was only going to take the job only if I got someone like Steve by my side. He's a friend first of all but he's great at what he does. Everyone at the club is doing a fantastic job - Antonio Pintus looking after the fitness side and also Kevin Keen and Ludo Miklosko. I think it's the secret of this club that everyone is doing a good job, like Gianluca Nani. It's what we said at the beginning that this is what would happen here. Steve Clarke is top class."

Zola has reported no fresh injuries ahead of Sunday's clash with Manchester United at Upton Park. Midfielder Radoslav Kovac, who has joined on loan from Spartak Moscow, is in the squad and could make the bench. Midfielder Kieron Dyer (calf), defender Danny Gabbidon (groin) and striker Dean Ashton (ankle) remain long-term absentees.

Team (from): Green, Neill, Collins, Upson, Ilunga, Behrami, Parker, Noble, Savio, Collison, Cole, Di Michele, Boa Morte, Lastuvka, Lopez, Spector, Tomkins, Tristan, Sears, Kovac

Elsewhere, Sir Alex Ferguson has been discussing his team's chances ahead of their West Ham clash this weekend. For once he was stumped when the former Hammers manager Alan Pardew dropped in to see him this week and they began discussing the peculiar intensity of Manchester United's games at Upton Park which, Pardew told him, get Irons fans more worked up than the arrival of either Arsenal or Tottenham. The Reds, of course, are used to receiving negative reactions on their travels, but it is one of the game's more curious phenomenons that the Boleyn should rank alongside Anfield and Elland Road as a ground where the atmosphere is at its hottest. Perhaps the rivalry is borne of the vitriolic reception Paul Ince received from West Ham fans for years after he had moved to United; or else the east London club's knowledge that twice, in 1992 and 1995, they killed United's title hopes in the home stretch. "I've no idea. I can only throw ideas out," Ferguson said yesterday. "I could be a million miles out. I just know it's unusual."

United have an unimpressive recent record in the capital and they will find Gianfranco Zola's West Ham confident and injury-free on Sunday, while Cristiano Ronaldo will have memories of his missed penalty in last season's 2-1 defeat at West Ham. Since the Portugal winger's late winner at Craven Cottage in February 2007, which set Ferguson's side on the way to their first title in three years, United have won just once in nine trips to London. This season's games in the city have brought draws against Chelsea and Tottenham and defeat against Arsenal. "I was not aware of the record," insisted Ferguson. "It happens. We have had good runs down there in the past. But it doesn't concern me. We are in good form so why should we not want to play anyone." The Scot said he is "prepared to take this team anywhere at the moment, with the form of the team as it is." This is, he justifiably said, "a great moment, a great period we are going through".

The 'great period' has raised talk of an unprecedented quadruple, in addition to the Community Shield and Club World Cup that already adorn the Old Trafford trophy cabinet. Ferguson has only loosely accepted it is a possibility and the spectre of Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan hanging over the Champions League holders' defence is enough to keep such talk at a minimum. But Scotland star Darren Fletcher is at least alive to the opportunity. "It is definitely possible," he said. "Nothing is close and there is still a lot to play for but if we can keep everyone fit who knows? This squad is capable but we are going to need numbers. It couldn't be just a core of 13 or 14 players. There will be so many games to keep everyone fresh will take a real effort."

Manchester United's problem is that domestic rivals such as West Ham, while not in a position to claim a trophy such as the Premier League, will be trying their damnedest to halt the Red Devils. The Hammers, of course, boast those back-to-back home wins over Ferguson's men and also still fondly talk of the two league titles they deprived Ferguson of in 1992 and 1995 with heroic performances in the last week of the season. In addition, the gloom that accompanied the Icelandic banking collapse and subsequent fears over the Hammers' finances have eased and Gianfranco Zola has taken his side to the fringes of a European place.

The Italian's work has not gone unnoticed by Ferguson, who acknowledges what a difficult test lies in wait for his men. "Zola has done a remarkable job to get West Ham to the level they are playing at just now," said the Scot, once more crowned manager of the month. "They are undefeated in the last eight games and have only conceded three goals in that time, which is a fair indication of the work they have been doing. It can't be easy in their situation. We have all been watching West Ham's difficulties in terms of finance and having to sell players, so Zola has done very well. We have lost two leagues down there so we know how hard it is. But if we are going to go to grounds where that team is playing at its optimum you also hope you are in your best form. That is where we are at the moment."

While the recent plaudits have been reserved for that defence and the burgeoning Dimitar Berbatov, Manchester United's man of the moment is the unsung Michael Carrick, whose six years at West Ham propelled him on his way in football. In many respects, the 27-year-old is Old Trafford's anonymous man; the one left behind in Manchester during international breaks like next week's, whose No 16 you don't tend to see adorning replica shirts. Ferguson yesterday compared Carrick to Dennis Irwin – both "the quieter types [who] sometimes get overlooked by fans and the press," as he put it. Irwin, Ferguson recalled, "used to give me eight or nine out of 10 performances every week. But he didn't have the celebrity status of others round about him – like Ryan [Giggs], David Beckham, Eric Cantona and Mark Hughes. He was a quiet lad who went about his business. Michael Carrick may come into that category." The quality of Carrick's distribution has never been in question, though he has added a defender's vision to it this season. One thing is for certain. When he steps out on to the field on Sunday he is assured a slightly warmer reception from the home faithful than the one reserved for Paul Ince.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very Interesting!
Thank You!


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