Realist Zola loses entertainer tag

Irons manager heads for Chelsea reunion today having put attacking instincts on hold
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The Independent Football

When West Ham won their first two Premier League games in Gianfranco Zola's charge, he must have felt there was nothing to this management lark. Reality soon dawned and of 10 subsequent games the less than steely Irons have won just one, scraping past Sunderland 1-0, while scoring four goals. It is hardly the sort of form to be taking to Chelsea this afternoon for a first reunion with the club at which he was voted the most popular player of all time.

He likes to talk of his first managerial job as "the project" which was laid before him after succeeding Alan Curbishley, who is now claiming constructive dismissal after leaving in September, immediately after two successive 4-1 wins. The project is still mentioned, and Zola remains faithful to it, insisting he will not walk away unless the terms of it change.

"When I first came, the programme was to develop players, bring in young players and keep them – and one day to get to the point where we were competing with bigger clubs, but not spending big money," he said. "That was the project."

It was assumed to be in some danger after the collapse of Icelandic bank Landsbanki and of Samson Holdings, another business closely allied to West Ham's owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, which proved to be as resilient as Samson without his flowing locks. Zola deals not with Gudmundsson but with the chief executive, Scott Duxbury, and the technical director, Gianluca Nani, who continue to tell him that nothing has changed and his best players will not have to be sold next month.

"There have been a lot of things going on, as you know, but I've been told the plan hasn't changed, so we will see," he said. And if it did? "If the club speak to me and tell me they have to change the strategy then I will have to make a decision. One of the reasons I came here is because I like the project. I'm not here for the money or because I want to become the manager of Chelsea or Manchester [United] or Real Madrid. I'm here because I like what they told me about developing young players and improving the team.

"We need to be allowed a little bit of time to make it work. Give us a little bit of time, maybe one year, and then if it doesn't work I'm gonna be the first one to say, 'Look, I made a mistake, I'm not good enough to do this'. I'll take my responsibilities, I'm not going to turn my back on them. But we need a little bit of time."

It was a typically honest assessment, though not the sort of plea the little Italian was expecting to be making two months ago. The other major adjustment he has had to make was in tempering the traditionally adventurous nature of West Ham's football that clearly attracted him at the time. In those early days he would say: "Entertainment is what we're here for. It's vital. It's not just a war where you need to get a victory at all costs. What we're doing is trying to give a smile to people and make it enjoyable." Last Monday night at Upton Park, the only smiles were on the faces of Tottenham's players, staff and supporters after a comfortable 2-0 victory that pushed the home side down into the lowest position they have been all season. Defeats by both of West Ham's most hated rivals in the space of a week would be hard to bear.

Such an outcome would occasion a degree of sympathy for Zola and his assistant Steve Clarke, who played even more games for Chelsea, but the hosts can hardly afford to drop points after taking only one from the last two League matches at Stamford Bridge. Studying West Ham's problems ought to put talk of crises into perspective as Ray Wilkins, Chelsea's first-team coach, tried to do before training on Friday. "We're not worried because we're sitting second in the Premier League and are through to the second stage of the Champions' League," he said. "We've not played bad football at home, just missed that final touch."

Didier Drogba is champing at the bit to supply it if Nicolas Anelka cannot, but Chelsea usually find it in any case against West Ham, having won the last six encounters, three of them by 4-0, 4-1 and 4-1. From tomorrow until the teams meet again in April, there will then be goodwill to all former Chelsea servants. "Gianfranco will handle the situation with no problem because he has humility," Wilkins said. "He's had to realise they can't play every game in the same fashion. They appear to have tightened defensively so we're expecting a tough old game. I don't think they'll come here and play an open, expansive game."

Much as Zola would love to.

Today's matches

Chelsea v West Ham United (Sky Sports 1, 4pm)

An emotional return to Stamford Bridge for West Ham's managerial team, but expect the approach to be more Steve Clarke than Gianfranco Zola – or even Carlton Cole. Between them they have tightened the defence but at the expense of goals at the other end.

Portsmouth v Newcastle United (Sky Sports 1, 1.30pm)

Newcastle make the Premier League's longest journey knowing that it has not brought them a victory since 1991 in the old Second Division. The shoot-out between England contenders Peter Crouch and Michael Owen, both in good form, could decide their fate this time.

Steve Tongue