Football: Hammers need to curb Saha threat

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WEST HAM will discover in the Saint Symphorien stadium in northern France tonight whether giving up two weeks' summer holiday, postponing two Premiership matches and jeopardising all their pre-season planning was a passport to the Uefa Cup or a total waste of time.

Overturning a 1-0 deficit in their Intertoto Cup tie against Metz would earn them a place in Europe's second most important competition for the first time in the club's history. Their previous four challenges on the Continent, notable for some wonderful contests and two finals, were all in the Cup- Winners' Cup.

An error by Frank Lampard Snr put the skids under them in the 1976 final against Anderlecht and now a missed penalty by his son in the home leg a fortnight ago threatens to undermine the current campaign before the serious part has begun.

In the meantime West Ham have lost ground in the Premiership, with matches against Liverpool and Southampton postponed, and collected early-season injuries which may have been caused by the rushed preparation for a season that started against the aptly named FC Jokerit on 17 July.

They are particularly stretched in defence, with Ian Pearce, Neil Ruddock, Scott Minto and Stuart Pearce unavailable for one reason or another. Paul Kitson, who missed the 2-1 victory over Leicester on Saturday, will need a late test on his injured ankle, so Ian Wright is in the squad, hoping for one last European hurrah in his final season before swapping the penalty box for the goggle box.

Starting 1-0 down tonight means that West Ham's tactical approach will have to be spot on. As Lampard Snr, now the assistant manager to Harry Redknapp, put it: "We have to be strong but not too cavalier."

Tonight's opponents have no great history, having not won a major trophy until the 1984 French Cup, but they peaked two seasons ago, when denied their national championship only on goal difference by Lens. In fact this time last year Metz were playing - and narrowly failing - in the qualifying round of the Champions' League, in which Lens eventually did for Arsenal.

A disappointing season followed, in which the sale of several important players was reflected in a final position of 10th, with only 28 goals scored in 34 games. So far this season they have again been lower middle class, and stand 13th after winning one match from four.

The player West Ham must curb is the striker Louis Saha, who in four months on loan at Newcastle as one of Ruud Gullit's continental army scored only one goal and made no great impression. He clearly finds the Intertoto more to his liking than the Premiership and has scored eight times in the competition so far, including the only goal at Upton Park, where he might even have had a hat-trick.

Another major obstacle to West Ham's progress will be the impressive Lionel Letizi, the Metz goalkeeper, who stopped everything the London side could throw at him, including Lampard's rather gentle spot-kick.