West Ham United manager Gianfranco Zola was plunged further into crisis yesterday when he lost Guillermo Franco to a freak training ground injury that leaves him with no fit senior strikers for Saturday's Premier League relegation game with Portsmouth.
His squad is stretched to breaking point now and Zola will surely have to start with Frank Nouble, the 18-year-old signing from Chelsea who is still eligible to play for West Ham's under-18s in the FA Youth Cup. Nouble has played only five times for the Hammers since he arrived in the summer and he has never started a game for the club, let alone led the line alone.
Zola has had appalling luck with injuries already this season. Carlton Cole injured his knee against Burnley last month and will be out until midway through next month. Zavon Hines is also out with a knee injury and Dean Ashton has been forced to retire after more than three years battling the consequences of his broken ankle sustained in an England training session.
Franco, 33, an Argentine-born Mexican acquitted himself well in the 1-1 draw with Chelsea on Sunday, leading the line on his own in a 4-5-1 formation. He picked up the injury in a session yesterday at the club's Chadwell Heath training ground and is now likely to miss the crucial game against Portsmouth and the game against Tottenham on 28 December.
It means Zola faces the Christmas period with no reliable source of goals in a team in 19th place and one point above Portsmouth in last place in the league. The club's owner CB Holdings, which is 70 per cent owned by the Icelandic bank Straumur, said yesterday that it would not sell the club cheaply but there are now major fears as to whether the club has the playing resources to survive in the Premier League.
Even Franco was a free agent when he was signed in September and with the club operating under financial restrictions, they may come under pressure next month to sell leading players Scott Parker and Matthew Upson. Gianluca Nani, the club's technical director, will have to rely upon loan signings if he is to bring any players in during the transfer window.
Zola has admitted himself that he does not know what the future holds: "You know, we want to keep the best players. I don't know what's going to happen next month. The only thing I know for sure is that before then we have three games coming up that are very, very important and I want to focus on them. That's the main thing, the rest is out of my control."
West Ham released a statement yesterday in response to the bids from the former Birmingham City owners David Gold and David Sullivan who have outlined their interest in buying the club. West Ham have £40m of debt and CB Holdings, which comprises the major creditors of former owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, wants to sell for around £80m – with the buyer assuming the debt.
Gold and Sullivan have offered £50m for the club and have been rejected. The statement was a clear sign from the owners that although they want to sell the club they will not be bounced into doing so at a cheap price.
A spokesman for West Ham said: "Our shareholder CB Holdings has made it clear it would like to find new owners for the club in the next three years and that is still the case. In recent months we have had a number of approaches from parties interested in investing in West Ham United.
"The club have held a number of discussions with those parties and talks are still ongoing. CB Holdings is not under pressure to conclude an agreement in the immediate future, but the club will keep supporters informed of any developments when appropriate."