Monday, 19 January 2009

West Ham v Fulham (John Simkin)

Gianfranco Zola appointment as West Ham’s manager caused me and a lot of fans some concern. The historical record shows that top players rarely make great coaches. It is argued that naturally gifted players find it virtually impossible to understand how to coach someone to greatness. What is more, Zola’s only experience was of coaching the Italy Under-21 team.

Zola’s chances of success as a manager were improved dramatically by the appointment of Steve Clarke as his assistant. Insiders at Chelsea had been claiming for sometime that he had made a significant contribution to the club’s achievements under José Mourinho.

Three wins in the first nine games was not a great start and the insistence of selecting players such as Julian Faubert and Luis Boa Morte raised serious questions about his judgement. I also did not agree with his reluctance to play Jack Collison and Freddie Sears. Although I suspect some of his team selection has been influenced by the need to sell players on high-wages.

The turning-point was the game against Chelsea. This saw the emergence of Collison, Noble, Parker and Behrami as a formidable foursome that could ably protected the back-four. These players also have the energy to support Bellamy and Cole when the team has the opportunity to go on to the attack.

On recent form, Fulham unbeaten in their last nine games, gave the Hammers a chance to show how far they have improved since the 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge. The main problem was the absence of Bellamy who has been such a dynamic force in recent weeks. His replacement, David Di Michele, is not the same sort of player, however, Zola could have argued that the kind of skills he does possess, would be useful against a packed midfield that is not known for its hard-tackling.

West Ham kept the ball well in the opening exchanges and was rewarded when in the seventh minute John Pantsil tried to show the Upton Park crowd that he was a skillful full-back who should not have been sold by calmly chesting Neill’s cross back to his goalkeeper. However, the gap between the two players was too wide and Di Michele nipped in to give us an early lead.

With the home side dominating the midfield, Fulham appeared to pose no danger until Paul Konchesky went on a run in the 22nd minute. Lucas Neill, motivated by a knowledge that the full-back had not scored since the FA Cup final against Liverpool, backed off and allowed him to shoot unhindered from 34 yards. It was a beauty and it curled just inside the post.

Despite this set-back, West Ham refused to panic and continued to play their short-passing game from the back. This was sensible because the occasional long clearance up to Cole was being won by the impressive Brede Hangeland.

The second-half was more open and although Fulham attacked more often, they never posed a real threat and Green did not have to make a save. The same could also be said of Mark Schwarzer but it was the Fulham defence that always looked like they would make a mistake that would give the home side an opportunity to score. This is what happened when Konchesky dwelt on the ball on the hour mark and Cole robbed him and headed for goal. A few weeks ago the defender would have allowed Cole to go on and shoot over the bar or into the midriff of the goalkeeper. Given his recent form, Konchesky decided he could not take this risk and brought him down from behind. Noble coolly dispatched the penalty and West Ham had a lead that they never looked like loosing.

Dickson Etuhu was the next Fulham defender to make a serious mistake. He sliced the ball to Collison who provided a nicely weighted pass to Di Michele, who slipped it through to Cole, who applied a confident touch past the goalkeeper.

The newspaper reports on the game will no doubt concentrate on the three mistakes by Fulham defenders that resulted in three goals for the home side. However, this was an impressive performance by the Hammers that gave an in-form Fulham side a lesson in how to play football. All the players seem comfortable on the ball and had no difficulty in finding a teammate with an accurate pass. They also play as a team, each player being fully aware of the role they are playing.

The Upton Park crowd chanted: “Who needs Craig Bellamy?” It is true we did not need him against Fulham but a player of his ability will be required for the rest of the season. We especially need a player who makes Bellamy-type runs in away games. Zola tells us he is going to be given the money for Bellamy to buy new players. Hopefully, he will use it to bring in talented youngsters who have already shown they can do it in the Premiership rather than European players who are past their best.

Robert Green: Had little to do but some would argue that no goalkeeper should be beaten from that distance. (6)

Herita Ilunga: Another assured performance from a player who makes very few mistakes. (7)

Lucas Neill: His distribution was better today but his forays into the opposition half always make me very nervous. His slow jog back to his position is unacceptable and is lucky to retain the faith of Zola. (6)

James Collins: He is developing a very good partnership with Upson. So far his lack of speed is not causing him any real problems. (7)

Matthew Upson: Commanding performance from this talented player. Hopefully, he will not be tempted to join a team playing in the Champions League. (7)

Scott Parker: The quality of the Fulham midfield meant that Parker did not have to be at his very best today. However, it was still a highly competent performance. (7)

Valon Behrami: Another all action performance from a highly valued member of the team. He only just failed to close-down Konchesky for Fulham's goal. (8)

Jack Collison: My man of the match. His promotion to the first-team has been a tremendous difference to the side's performance. Has the ability to go to the very top. West Ham's ambition will be tested by the offers that will come from the top clubs for this highly promising player. (8)

Mark Noble: He gives the midfield a sense of urgency. As with Collison, his youthful energy makes a great deal of difference to our midfield. (8)

Carlton Cole: Kept fairly quiet in the first-half by the impressive Hangeland. However, he proved a real handful in the second-half and showed that he is now full of confidence in front of goal. (8)

David Di Michele: His best game since he joined the club. His style of playing was suited to a packed midfield. However, I am not convinced he has the necessary abilities to be successful in the premiership. (7)

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