Zola at risk as Cellino closes in on deal

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The Independent Football

Gianfranco Zola's job as West Ham United manager looked increasingly insecure yesterday as sources close to Massimo Cellino, the club's most recent suitor, claimed a takeover is "99.98 per cent" certain to go ahead.

They say the first thing the 53-year-old president of Serie A club Cagliari would do if his bid is accepted is to sack Zola and his assistant, Steve Clarke, and bring in fellow Italian Daniele Arrigoni. Cellino's advisers believe an agreement could be made this weekend with West Ham's owners CB Holdings, which would lead to an immediate change in manager.

Cellino faces stiff competition for West Ham from the former Birmingham City owners David Gold and David Sullivan, Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes and London-based Intermarket Group. CB Holdings values the club at around £100m.

Cellino is understood to be unconvinced by Zola's performance as manager at West Ham, who visit Aston Villa tomorrow a place above the Premier League's relegation places. Cellino has a reputation for being ruthless and as Cagliari owner he has seen 22 different coaches work for him in 18 years.

Yet Arrigoni has achieved only limited success in his career, having managed nine clubs in Italy with moderate results, including a spell under Cellino at Cagliari in 2004-05, when one of his players was Zola. Arrigoni has been out of work since November 2008 when he was sacked by Bologna.

Zola admitted yesterday his future is uncertain. The Italian said: "I can only focus on the things that are under my control. This is not under my control and I'm not going to spend even a second thinking about that."

Cellino has to overcome several obstacles before he can become West Ham's owner. First he must demonstrate to merchant banker Rothschild, which is screening potential bidders, that he has sufficient funds to go through with the deal. Then he must convince CB Holdings to sell to him.

He must also pass the Premier League's "fit and proper person test", which may depend on the league's interpretation of Cellino's past dealings with the Italian justice system. Cellino was accused of defrauding the European Union over a contract to ship grain to developing countries. The case ended in 2000 with a plea bargain, which under Italian law is not necessarily an admission of guilt.

Cellino said yesterday he hoped the deal could be completed shortly. He said: "I thought I would have closed everything previously, as I showed that my offer was a serious one."

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