Thursday, 5 February 2009

Playing With A Smile

West Ham United midfielder Valon Behrami trudged off the pitch at the Emirates Stadium last weekend feeling disappointed. Nothing unusual there, one may feel, plenty of players troop off disappointed after playing Arsenal. However, Behrami was disappointed because he and his team-mates had managed merely a draw against the mighty Gunners, a measure of the progress that he feels the Hammers have made since Gianfranco Zola took over as manager at the Boleyn Ground. "It was a good result, but I think we didn't play very well," Behrami told the gathered media. "We know we can keep the ball better than we did today and we can play much better than we did today, so it's a little bit strange, but the positive thing is the point we got."

So West Ham took their unbeaten sequence to eight games with arguably their most resilient performance to date. Despite the off-field dramas – there has seen growing speculation about the club’s financial position circulating the air waves, as well as five players leaving Upton Park for pastures new this month – the team have blossomed in the face of adversity. Goals have started to flow from the boots of resurgent pair Carlton Cole and David Di Michele, while the back four of Lucas Neill, Matthew Upson, James Collins and Herita Ilunga are developing into a resolute unit.

Behrami insists there is no mystery behind the side’s impressive recent run of results, putting it down to nothing more than good, old-fashioned team spirit. "We are a good team," said the Switzerland international. "When we work all together we are a good team and I think the most important thing is our team spirit. Every single player is fighting together to do better every day so our secret is our team spirit." That approach has paid dividends for Behrami in particular, as the 23-year-old has been the embodiment of hard graft in a West Ham shirt. Despite arriving in East London with a reputation as a ‘pretty boy’, the midfielder’s refusal to shirk a tackle and his tireless displays have seen him become an instant hit with the fans.

Yet more than anything else Gianfranco Zola has encouraged his players to play with smiles on their faces since his arrival in October last year. Behrami admits it is that enjoyment factor which has seen the team escape the throes of a relegation battle and put themselves in contention for a UEFA Cup place, with the team currently occupying eighth place in the table. "During the negative moments, when we lost four games in a row, the manager was always saying positive things to the team," he added. "Every time he would laugh with the team, so when we go to the training ground you enjoy working harder. This spirit is stronger than before and I think that is his secret."

Talk in east London has recently switched from discussion of a possible relegation battle to the rather loftier dreams of European qualification, but the Swiss thinks that it is far too soon for talk of such things. "I think we shouldn't worry about looking at the table now," Behrami continued. "We have to work hard every day and then maybe at the end of the season, hopefully we will have a chance to get into Europe. But it's too early to talk about it now - we have to carry on doing what we're doing."

And what they are doing is keeping clean sheets; three in row since Paul Konchesky's wonder strike for Fulham in mid January. Bar a brilliant reflex save in the 2-0 win at Hartlepool United and a 58th-minute stop from Jimmy Bullard in the 2-0 victory against Hull City, Robert Green has enjoyed superb protection from those in front of him. Such was the strength and organisation demonstrated by his team-mates in Sunday's game at Arsenal, the keeper only had to make routine catches and clearances despite the home side seeing more of the ball. "It's a tremendous effort by everyone and it shows if you don't concede goals you're not going to lose games," Green said. "The main thing is we keep going and keep the momentum going in the team and everybody is really encouraged by our recent run of form. We're playing as a team, everyone in the team is a happy camper and everyone is playing well."

The 29-year-old Green will face another test when the might of Manchester United visit the Boleyn Ground on Sunday, but Green is, understandably, optimistic about the Hammers chances of making it nine games unbeaten. "Confidence is good. The lads will get a rest before that game and Upton Park will be rocking. They're [Manchester United] are on a tremendous run of form but we're not doing too bad either. It's competitive so it should make it a great game."

The draw at the Emirates demonstrated another side to Gianfranco Zola's team, after they had impressed so much when going forward in recent weeks. Although Green was happy to pick up the point in north London, he, like Behrami, says the players were disappointed not to have created more going forward. He said: "We took 20 minutes to get going really, but after a while we started to play. Going to Arsenal and getting a point is pleasing. I think we could have done more on the ball but we defended well and we limited their chances when they attacked. We'd have taken a point at the start but we're disappointed we didn't do ourselves justice in the footballing sense and the lads feel that. Disappointed is not really the word as we're walking off the pitch saying 'tremendous point' but we feel we could have played more football."

New signing Savio got his second taste of the Barclays Premier League and Green was impressed with the new No10's attitude in what could have been a daunting occasion. "Everyone was working hard and when Savio came on he was working hard and chasing. I'm sure it's a bit different from Brescia as running out at the Emirates is a bit different from playing in Serie B." Green cautions West Ham fans though, saying the youngster might not be ready to make an immediate impact on the Premier League as he adjusts to the rigours of the English top flight. "I'm sure he knows he's still got a lot to learn but he's very young and I think he knows he's not the finished product just yet," said the keeper.

That said, Savio has settled quickly into life at West Ham United and is relishing the prospect of this Sunday's visit of Manchester United. The Germany Under-20 star has made two substitute appearances for the club since his move from Brescia Calcio last month and is understandably eager for more. "I was very excited about being able to get on against Hull, where we won the match in a magnificent way, and then against Arsenal, where again we played a very good game and the team did a very good job."

In particular, coming on in last weekend's run-out at the Emirates with the match finely poised could have fazed Savio, but he said Gianfranco Zola had given him confidence. With the crowd singing his name again, the forward entered the fray with 20 minutes to go and was a lively presence. "He just said go on and show what you can do - the rest of the players also helped me a lot and it was easy for me to get involved straight away. Everyone has been helping me since I arrived, the manager, players and staff have helped me settle in straight away and that has been very good for me. I am looking forward to the next match against Manchester United and if I can play a part in this that will be good also."

Elsewhere, several of today's newspapers have run with the story about United extending the stay of Herita Ilunga. The Sun states the defender has snubbed Liverpool to sign a four-year contract at Upton Park and the Hammers will pay Toulouse £2million when the Congo left-back’s loan runs out in May. Ilunga’s impressive performances had reportedly alerted Kop boss Rafa Benitez but West Ham chief Gianfranco Zola said: "We really wanted to keep Ilunga. He has done fantastically well." The article also claims Matthew Upson, Robert Green and Scott Parker are all expected to sign new contracts.

Meanwhile, West Ham sporting director Gianluca Nani has shut the door on the hopes of Sam Dalla Bona, who had spoken to West Ham coach, and close personal friend, Gianfranco Zola with a view to returning to London. The Italian midfielder, who spent four years at Chelsea before joining AC Milan in 2002, offered his services to West Ham having recently cut short his contract with Napoli. Yet Nani insists United have no interest in the player. "I'm sorry to disappoint Dalla Bona's dreams, but there is no chance he can play for us," Nani told Radio Kiss Kiss. "It's true that the player has asked to train with West Ham but we still have to give him a response. Technically he doesn't enter into our plans and anyway we can't even sign him until July. If he came to London, it would only be to continue to train." Dalla Bona, who joined Napoli from Sampdoria in the summer of 2006, has failed to make a single appearance this season and rescinded his contract with the club earlier this week.

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