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Page last updated at 17:59 GMT, Friday, 8 January 2010

Future bright for London rivals

Jonathan Pearce
By Jonathan Pearce
BBC football commentator

As the full-time whistle blew last Sunday at Upton Park it would have been easy to believe Arsenal and West Ham are heading fast in different directions.

As soon as Arsenal stepped up a gear, they blew the Hammers out of the FA Cup with their fifth win in six games while West Ham had slumped to a fifth defeat in seven.

Arsenal's financial future seems secure but the purveyors of doom will have you believe West Ham are on the brink of collapse.

As I prepare to commentate on both London clubs this weekend, the contrasting fortunes of the pair caught my eye.

The next month is hugely important for both.

Arsenal forward Andrei Arshavin
Arsenal have plenty of attacking options. Arshavin is a little genius

When I left the Emirates on 29 November after seeing Arsenal well beaten by Chelsea, I never believed they'd still be in the title hunt six weeks later let alone in with a real chance of winning the Premier League.

It had been men against boys that day. Arsenal slumped off the pitch and Arsene Wenger was bitter in his interviews. It was the first time I'd ever been disappointed in the man.

But I should have listened more closely to what he was saying.

As usual he was right. The title race has been closer than anyone ever predicted and Arsenal have responded magnificently to that defeat and other adversities.

Robin van Persie is out for the season and Cesc Fabregas has missed half of their games since the Chelsea match with a hamstring injury.

But the side has ignored the problems and put together the sort of impressive spell that will have Chelsea and Manchester United worried. The leading pair look patchy and Wenger's side looks like the only one that can string together a run of nine or 10 wins on the spin at the moment.

The absence of Alex Song, who's at the Africa Cup of Nations, will be a blow. He's grown in stature this season as the defensive midfield screen. Abou Diaby has the physical presence to fill in but Denilson is also back from injury and so is Thomas Rosicky so Arsenal have plenty of attacking options. Arshavin is a little genius while Eduardo is finding his best form again.

Saturday's opponents Everton, with so many players injured or unavailable, will again find it hard to stop Arsenal. They've only picked up four points from a possible 51 in the Premier League at the north London club.

Harder tasks lie ahead for Wenger's team in the comings weeks with back-to-back crunch games at Villa, home to Manchester United, at Chelsea and home to Liverpool.

If they can win those home matches and avoid defeat in the other two, I think they'll win the title. It would be a refreshing break from the Chelsea/United duopoly.


West Ham don't have any such heady ambitions. Survival is their aim this season. Few are backing them to stay up. I believe they can do it though.

Firstly the financial situation isn't as grave as it was a few months ago. Major shareholders CB Holding aren't under pressure any longer to sell out cheaply after parent company - Straumur-Burdaras Investment Bank - had its debt payments frozen until September 2010.

That means Gianfranco Zola is likely to be able to keep all of his star names. A spokesman told me there was no way they'd be selling Scott Parker. Tottenham seem to have dropped their reported interest in Mathew Upson and I'm assured the club will not allow Robert Green to be prised away.

Zola has diligently reduced the wage bill. High earners Bellamy, Ljungberg and Neill have all departed and the compensation due to Sheffield United after the Carlos Tevez ruling is a manageable debt. The finances are being more prudently organised these days.

That's not to say new ownership wouldn't help. The squad is paper-thin. Though Alessandro Diamanti has popped up with four goals in five games, without the injured Carlton Cole the Hammers look lightweight.

Zola has suffered the retirement of Dean Ashton. Luis Boa Morte and Kieron Dyer have been long-term injury victims. Of his 29-man squad 11 players are aged 22 or under.

Others aren't up to traditional West Ham standards and he knows it. Where other managers may have flounced and pronounced the injustice of it all, Zola has simply got on with the job.

West Ham striker Carlton Cole
Without the injured Carlton Cole, the Hammers look lightweight

That attitude has impressed possible new owner Tony Fernandes.

The club needs stability in the dressing-room after too much upheaval and if Fernandes buys, then Zola would surely stay. The Malaysian-born multi-millionaire businessman has supported the club since his schooldays.

Former Birmingham City owners David Gold and David Sullivan, whose £46m bid is thought to be £30m below club expectations, have similar long-standing connections.

London-based company Intermarket could also be tabling a bid this week but Fernandes is exciting the fans the most.

At Sunday's Cup tie he reportedly announced at half-time on his Twitter page that West Ham "would soon have an owner who will make a difference and care".

He is thought to be worth £300m, turned Malaysia's decrepit national airline into one of the most successful in the world and has shrewd holdings in the hotel industry.

Any takeover will surely come too late for investment in the January transfer window and West Ham's league position could be fragile for months to come.

But just as Arsenal hit a daunting fixture list at the end of January, so Zola will be entering a favourable run of games - Portsmouth (a), Blackburn (h), Burnley (a), Birmingham (h), Hull (h).

I suspect they'll keep Cole back for that run. If they can pick up 11 points from the five matches then they'll have a solid foundation to get out of trouble, the club will look healthier for investors and the future will look a lot brighter than it did in 2009 or even at full-time last weekend.

Arsenal got the upper hand then and they'll remain the more likely bet for silverware for years to come. But at least the Hammers should still be playing in the Premier League next season and that's cause for celebration at Upton Park.

Jonathan Pearce will be at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday to commentate on Arsenal v Everton for Match of the Day with the programme broadcast on BBC One and online at 2230 GMT.

He will be at Upton Park on Sunday to commentate on West Ham v Wolves for Match of the Day 2 with the programme broadcast on BBC Two and online at 2230 GMT.

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see also
'Lots of interest' in West Ham
05 Jan 10 |  Business
Wenger sets sights on silverware
03 Jan 10 |  FA Cup
West Ham 1-2 Arsenal
03 Jan 10 |  FA Cup
Fan power sends Megson packing
30 Dec 09 |  Bolton
Pompey chimes failing
18 Dec 09 |  Football

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