With home games against Sunderland, Chelsea, Liverpool and Middlesbrough and trips to Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa, Stoke City and Everton to follow this weekend's visit to Ewood Park, Zola is positive his squad has the physical and mental strength to qualify for next season's UEFA Europa League. "The supporters can be optimistic as long as we manage to get all the players back from injury. Obviously we have had big problems and in the next few weeks we are looking forward to getting a few players back. When we have all of them available again then we really have a good chance because the team is looking well.
"The team has shown me that it is a strong team and also mentally they are strong because we lost a few games. We lost to Manchester United and at Bolton and the FA Cup game at Middlesbrough but we had a very difficult game against Manchester City and on that occasion they performed very, very well. It was a very good indication to me about how strong they are mentally. First of all we need consistency. It is a very, very important thing. They need to perform all the time. That is the main thing. We have achieved the first target which was to get to at least 40 points. Now they need to push even more because we want to reach 52 points. I believe that will be the quota we need to achieve if we want to go into Europe, so they need to push themselves even harder. At this point of the season we have less players because we have a few injuries and people are starting to get tired so they really need to be demanding of themselves."
The Italian has lost the services of some key players of late but sees that as an opportunity to gain greater understanding of the talent he could have at his disposal for years to come. Already this season, six Academy graduates - namely Mark Noble, James Tomkins, Jack Collison, Kyel Reid, Junior Stanislas and Freddie Sears - have played under Zola, while goalkeeper Marek Stech, defender Bondz N'Gala and versatile Josh Payne have all made it to the bench. Add to that Zavon Hines, the 20-year-old forward who made a goalscoring debut in the League Cup last August, and the likes of 19-year-old Savio, the 22-year-old Jonathan Spector and even Valon Behrami and Walter Lopez, who are both still only 23, and the future looks bright for the manager.
"The young players are an important part of the project we are taking forward but we need to use them at the right time and at the right moment," he said. "We have got a clear idea of what we are going to do. I have seen a few new players so I can have a better idea of what they can give me and also where they need to improve. I am going to be working on that and it is important for me for the future."
The star shing brightest at the moment is perhaps Tomkins, with the 19-year-old centre-back having more than played his part in the clean sheets the Hammers have kept in their last three Premier League fixtures. The England Under-19 defender has slotted in at the heart of the back-four following an injury to James Collins and has hardly put a foot wrong, greatly impressing his manager. Zola added: "He has been doing very well James. He is young but he is at the same time very mature. He looks very composed and I am very pleased with his performance. He is improving very much."
While some Premier League clubs have fielded weakened teams in the UEFA Cup this season, the manager also dismissed suggestions that European football would prove be an unwanted distraction for him and his players next term should the Hammers secure their qualification. "For me, it is very much worth qualifying. We haven't been in Europe for a while [the 2006/07 season]. I played in Europe for many years as a player and I know very much how good it is to play in that kind of competition not only for the silverware you can get but also for the opportunity it gives players to improve. If you play abroad you always improve so I wish that we can achieve that."
Which is not to say he is completely satisfied with the format of UEFA competitions in their present guise. Next season's Europa League will be a revamped version of the UEFA Cup and although there is a new name and schedule, there will still be plenty of games in group stages before the knockout rounds start. "Years ago, this competition was more attractive and that is something that maybe should be thought about for the future," said Zola. "For me it is nonsense. But I have the same idea about the Champions League really. For me, It does not have the same attractiveness as it had. Before it was a proper Champions League. To participate, you had to come first. It had a different value and it was the same for the UEFA Cup. It was much more attractive. A knockout competition already makes it more interesting."
Meanwhile, West Ham United’s mild-mannered manager came close to losing his patience when asked repeatedly about the Carlos Tévez affair. Expressing his hope that the dispute with Sheffield United about the eligibility of Tévez is over after the clubs agreed a compensation deal, he stated: "I hope it is the end of the matter. I hope from now on, we can be left in peace and plan our future. Since I have been here, we have been talking about this. And now it is settled, we are still talking about it. I wish we could get on with it and focus on our future because this club needs to plan its future. This club has been through so any problems this year. We will handle it properly. I just don’t want to hear about it any more, really, I have had enough. It is becoming just a little bit annoying!"
Elsewhere, Spanish futbol crackerjack Guillem Balague offers the following post in praise of the Sardinian maestro...
With all of the negative press and uncertainty surrounding West Ham at the moment, I feel it is only fitting that we take a moment to recognise the optimism and promise on show from an individual who is emerging as a fine coach in what must be severely testing circumstances.
I have a great deal of respect for Gianfranco Zola as a person, he is a lovely guy – in fact, if anything, he could probably do with a bit more venom when it comes to management. I think he deserves tremendous credit for the work he is doing at West Ham, particularly when you consider that he is essentially learning on the job. I have no doubt whatsoever that he will improve.
The fact that a number of other very large clubs are starting to take notice of his work after he has been in the role for only a few months, is testament to his talents as a coach. It seems that everyone recognises that there is room for improvement and, despite that fact – even by his own admission – he occasionally makes mistakes in reading the game, it is becoming increasingly obvious that he has the right ideas, a keen footballing brain and an infectious enthusiasm. It is noteworthy that while there have been a number of damaging off field issues overshadowing events on the pitch at Upton Park, with Zola around, there remains a sense of optimism at the East London club.
His role working under, or rather, alongside the West Ham technical director Gianluca Nani is particularly interesting and fundamental to how things work: Zola is a coach who spends a great deal of time leading the training; out on the training ground and enjoying a close, practical working relationship with the players. He is extremely hard working, putting in incredibly long shifts, fine tuning his methods and working out the small details one to one with his players. Alongside Steve Clarke, he is on top of day to day coaching a great deal more than many of his Premier League contemporaries.
In other words, Zola is a coach, not a manager: with the ball at his feet rather than a chequebook in his hand and a mobile phone in the other. The job of scouting and identifying players, negotiating contacts and networking falls to Nani, and in spite of the fact that the job title of technical director has become something of a dirty word to many in British football: it clearly works for Zola.
The little Italian enjoys being a coach and is comfortable working within that structure, while Nani, who operated similarly at Brescia, is a specialist in his clearly defined duties and, harboring no secret ambition to become a manager himself, does not encroach upon the coach`s role. And it works. Zola does not have the final say over player recruitment, and may even find that he ends up with a player that he initially needed convincing over, but the coach trusts that his technical director is highly adept at identifying talent and, as is the case with Savio, is grateful for it.
The relationship with Gianluca Nani is also pivotal to Zola`s long term future, because while perhaps an offer from Stamford Bridge could tempt the former Chelsea star to move on, the technical director will do his utmost to ensure that Zola remains at West Ham United for a very long time to come.