Di Canio's presence brings relief for West Ham

West Ham Utd 2 Blackburn Rovers 0
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The Independent Football

Behind the smile, the machine-gun chatter, the gestures of undying loyalty made to West Ham's supporters, there must have been a disappointed man. Thursday came and went without the call from Manchester United that surely would have given Paolo Di Canio his first taste of the Champions' League, so it was back to the less than exhilarating task of trying to keep West Ham in the Premiership.

Plenty of people, it seems, had been imploring Di Canio to extend his connection with West Ham (the longest he has stayed with any one club); callers at his door, the window cleaner, even the man who tends his fish tank, but in the end it was only Dwight Yorke's refusal to up sticks for Middlesbrough that kept the effervescent Italian in east London. "Now that the Champions' League deadline has passed, we hope it's the end of the saga," West Ham's manager, Glenn Roeder, said.

But Di Canio a contented footballer, happy to pursue his career in claret and blue, not red? "I think he would have been a sensation at Old Trafford," the ITV pundit Andy Townsend said on Saturday night. "It would have been a great move for him." Those are the words of an old pro alert to the collapse of a career defining opportunity.

However, since many things in football are not what they seem, West Ham's apparent willingness to part with Di Canio poses questions that Roeder may not care to answer. Manchester United saw Di Canio as a brilliant supernumerary. At West Ham he is the central influence, the team subordinate to his capricious whims, his moods, his temperament. When Sebastien Schemmel describes Di Canio as the most strikingly talented footballer he has ever played with and the leader in training, you have a sense of what Roeder may be up against. The manager must have his way otherwise all is lost.

That Roeder does not always get his way is evident in West Ham's defensive record. At Upton Park they have given up only seven goals, three fewer than any other club in the Premier League. On the road they have conceded 34, 11 more than the bottom-placed club Leicester City. It makes their home form crucial. And it is at home that Di Canio delivers.

West Ham's staunch defending on their own patch was not lost on Blackburn's manager, Graeme Souness, who insists that a growing crisis in the League will not force him to abandon proper principles of play. "We are not about to start lumping the ball upfield," he said after Saturday's 2-0 defeat kept Blackburn just one place above the relegation zone. "West Ham have shown how difficult they are to beat on their own ground and once they went in front it was always going to be difficult."

Ahead in the 17th minute when Di Canio and Frédéric Kanouté cleverly set up Trevor Sinclair for a powerful shot on the run, West Ham got so many men back behind the ball that Blackburn were unable to profit from possession. Finding themselves playing high up the field and thus vulnerable to speedily delivered counter-attacks, they needed more luck than came their way.

With Andy Cole and Matt Jansen far too easily muscled off the ball, Souness was left yearning for an attacker with strength to compliment subtlety. A Van Nistelrooy, a Shearer. Tugay Kerimoglu confirmed his development as one of English football's most effective midfielders and Damien Duff was in tantalising form, but with Di Canio in the mood West Ham were not about to surrender their advantage, although David James's finger tip save from Jansen's jab at a Duff shot drew praise from Roeder. "He has been a terrific signing," Roeder said.

Stepping up in search of an equaliser, Blackburn were spreadeagled much as they were in the first half, when Kanouté broke away to score. "Once again we had a lot of the ball and again we were punished for errors," Souness added. By the look of things, the youngsters in his team will have to learn fast.

Goals: Sinclair (17) 1-0; Kanouté (56) 2-0.

West Ham United (3-5-2): James 6; Repka 6, Dailly 6, Winterburn 6; Schemmel 6, Hutchison 5 (Labant 5, 57), Lomas 5, Cole 6, Sinclair 6 (Moncur, 87); Kanouté 6 (Defoe 5, 72), Di Canio 6. Substitutes not used: Hislop (gk), Foxe.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel 6; Neill 5, Johansson 5, Taylor 5, Bjornebye 5 (Gillespie 5, 66); Hignett 5, Tugay 6, Flitcroft 5 (Mahon, 80), Duff 6; Cole 5, Jansen 5. Substitutes not used: Kelly (gk), Berg, Hughes.

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough) 5.

Bookings: West Ham United: Schemmel. Blackburn: Tugay, Bjornebye, Hignett.

Man of the match: Di Canio.

Attendance: 35,307.