West Ham 2 Birmingham City 0: Smiles better as Diamanti and Cole strike for vital win
Gianfranco Zola might not have been shown too much love from new owners, but there can be no doubt the players have a big soft spot for their boss.
The manner in which Zola was mobbed by his team after Alessandro Diamanti led the charge in the direction of the dug-out, following his stunning free-kick, spoke volumes.
Co-owner David Sullivan may feel the likeable Italian could be ‘too nice’ for the rigours of a relegation battle, but his players are clearly appreciative of their manager.
And when Carlton Cole headed his side’s second after the break, Zola got the vindication he had been hoping for.
Priceless: Alessandro Diamanti opens the scoring
Indeed, the pre-match pressure was cranked up even further by Sullivan’s assertion that West Ham face financial ‘Armageddon’ should they fail to avoid relegation this season.
But Zola, of course, is far too nice a guy to rake over old ground. Beaming at the reaction of his players to Diamanti’s strike, Zola said: ‘It was just a celebration because we are going through a difficult moment. We want to stick together and succeed. It was a good gesture, I appreciated it very much.’
Unbridled joy: Gianfranco Zola and Alessandro Diamanti embrace
Zola was even prepared to concede Sullivan’s comments may have played their part, adding: ‘It might be that (his comments) provoked a response from the players. I’ve no problem with that. We showed we are a unit and that is the most important message we can send to anybody.
‘The chairman made a point and I made my point. That’s the end of the story, it belongs in the past.’
It was ironic, then, that the player who helped his team out of the bottom three is the living embodiment of the mess Sullivan and partner David Gold are trying to address.
After all, if West Ham had not received an advance on their money from sponsors SBOBETSBOBET, then they would not have been able to pay £6million to bring in Diamanti from Livorno last summer.
Gold was equally keen to draw a line under events regarding the difference of opinion between owners and manager.
‘You couldn’t have written the script that we would beat Birmingham,’ said Gold. ‘We have made a point to each other and the thing we have in common is the love for this club.’
It may have taken a spectacular piece of individual skill to help engineer West Ham’s first win in six league games. But given Birmingham’s sparkling form for much of this season — form which coincided with the decision by Sullivan and Gold to sell to Carson Yeung for £81.5m last October — West Ham’s players should be rewarded for consigning Alex McLeish’s side to only their second defeat in 16.
‘We have shown that we have got it in the locker to bounce back,’ said the Birmingham manager. ‘The challenge is to do it again and we have the carrot of an FAFA Cup tie against Derby to show we can do that.’
West Ham made their presence felt early on. Mido, making his first start, testing Joe Hart with a header before James Tomkins forced goalkeeper Hart into a save with a 25-yard drive. The encouraging signs from the home side soon had McLeish barking the orders and the first response came from Cameron Jerome, who picked up a loose ball in the West Ham box before chipping it over Robert Green from a tight angle.
Points secure: Carlton Cole stoops to nod West Ham’s second
Matthew Upson could only partially clear the danger, allowing Carr to take on Diamanti before driving a ball across the face of goal which Green acrobatically palmed away.
Diamanti then crashed a powerful shot goalwards which Hart tipped over while, with the game opening up, Jerome should have done better than fire wide after being released by Lee Bowyer. Cole announced his arrival by sending a shot wide after a neat turn and followed that up with a powerful strike from 12 yards that needed a last ditch block from Scott Dann.
WEST HAM (4-4-2): Green 7; Faubert 6, Tomkins 7, Upson 7, Ilunga 6 (Spector 46min, 6); Behrami 6, Kovac 6 , Parker 8 (Noble 86), Diamanti 8; Mido (Ilan 66, 6), Cole 8.
BIRMINGHAM (4-4-2): Hart 7; Carr 6,
R Johnson 5, Dann 6, Ridgewell 6; Gardner 6, Ferguson 6, Bowyer 6 (Madera 77), Fahey 5 (McFadden 66, 6); Phillips 6, Jerome 5.
Booked: Bowyer, Dann.
Man of the match: Scott Parker.
Referee: Mike Dean.
Predictably, Lee Bowyer was the first player to go into referee Mike Dean’s book for taking away the legs of Diamanti. But it was Birmingham’s second booking for Dann’s trip on Parker 20 yards out which led directly to West Ham’s opener.
Diamanti sized up the angles before expertly curling the ball up and over the wall and into the top right-hand corner with the last kick of the half.
Ten minutes after the restart, Craig Gardner tried to take a leaf out of the Diamanti guide to free-kicks but Green was equal to the task, punching the ball away to safety.
And any nerves were calmed in the 67th minute when Valon Behrami released Julien Faubert down the right. His cross was a peach, as was Cole’s run to get ahead of Dann before heading home at the near post from inside the six-yard box. Who says nice guys cannot be winners?
Zola is one of football’s good guys, rarely seen without a grin on his face. Sportsmail considers whether he had much to smile about.
Zola made four changes to the side which lost at Burnley. He surprised some fans by dropping Mark Noble and Jack Collison to the bench, but the move paid off as Alessandro Diamanti, restored to the side, scored in a more potent attack.
Zola has often used a lone striker due to his shortage of forward options, but he reverted to 4-4-2 with Mido playing alongside Carlton Cole. The Hammers continued to play the ball out from the back and tried to pick out Cole at every opportunity, often to good effect.
West Ham co-owner David Sullivan may think Zola is too nice for the job, but his touchline presence paid off as his constant motivation helped his side take a crucial lead. Diamanti made a point of running to Zola to celebrate his opening goal.
If the players maintain the same level of commitment, West Ham will beat the drop and Zola will keep his job.
Zola replaced Herita Ilunga with Jonathan Spector at half-time and then swapped Mido for Ilan, finally bringing on Noble for Scott Parker. Solid but not spectacular.