Grant buoyed by victories on and off the field

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The Independent Football

A relaxed sunshine break on the Algarve could hardly be further removed from the icy reception awaiting Avram Grant and his West Ham squad at Stoke City's hostile Britannia Stadium tomorrow.

Grant, though, believes three days' rest and recuperation in Portugal is ideal preparation ahead of the FA Cup sixth-round tie that could secure the Hammers a place at Wembley for the first time in 30 years, even if his players have been left scarred by the shame of allowing their ageing manager to crow about his success at the table tennis table.

"I was good!" insisted the manager. "I lost only to one player, a young one. Dylan Tombides has no respect. No respect to the manager. I beat the others and not only because they all want to be in the team this weekend!"

Had the trip been taken six weeks ago, it's unlikely Grant would have been so keen to boast of his prowess with bat in hand, while his description of the leisure activities made available to his team after training – sea fishing and golf were popular – would almost certainly have prompted condemnation from those who believed the club's plight at the foot of the Premier League should preclude such fun.

The atmosphere at Upton Park has been lightened, however, by a run of just one defeat in six league games, capped by back-to-back victories over Liverpool and Stoke that briefly lifted the club out of the bottom three.

"I think the training was good for the players," Grant said. "It's always good to be together even if it was only for a few days. There was a better atmosphere in training today [Friday]. There was a lot of happiness. Also we know that there are some tough games to come but we are on our way."

Relegation remains an overwhelming concern but the trend appears to have been reversed and Grant's position has not been subject to the same intense scrutiny that bookmarked every game earlier in the campaign.

Last Saturday's victory, a convincing 3-0 win over Tony Pulis's Stoke side, ensured the manager and his squad could fly off satisfied they deserved their break and struck a potentially telling blow against opponents who will now, eight days later, be seeking revenge.

Unsurprisingly, the league remains the priority for Grant, who last year guided Portsmouth to the FA Cup final but was unable to prevent the south coast club from dropping to the Championship. That does not mean, however, that the Cup is being treated lightly.

"I say it's more important but that doesn't mean we won't give everything," said the manager. "The first priority for any team is the league. But just as in the Carling Cup we gave everything, we want to do the same in this. We are one game from Wembley. I like it at Wembley and I want to be there again and we will do everything to win. But Stoke have the same ambitions and it will be a big achievement for them."

The recent improvement in form has coincided with the return to fitness of midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger and the return to form of striker Carlton Cole, who has scored five goals in his past six games taking his season tally to 11, one short of his best-ever return two seasons ago.

While Grant equates Hitzlsperger's emergence to a new signing, it is the January arrival of strikers Robbie Keane and Demba Ba that appear to have inspired Cole.

"The competition means all the strikers are better, it seems," the manager said. "Since Robbie and Demba came, Carlton has scored a lot of goals. Freddie [Piquionne] is doing well and Victor Obinna was before so I think the competition will be good for us."

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 2pm (ITV1; Highlights ITV1, 10.20pm)

Lee Dixon's prediction: Home win

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