For a game in which most of the talking had been done off the pitch in the build-up, Alessandro Diamanti’s reaction to his opening goal for West Ham against Birmingham City on Wednesday night spoke volumes. The Italian made a point of rushing to his beleaguered compatriot and manager, Gianfranco Zola, after scoring with a pinpoint free-kick on the stroke of half-time to lift the pressure of a hitherto tense West Ham side.
Zola had been angered by the new co-owner, David Sullivan, revealing that staff would be asked to take a 25% pay cut in the summer on the eve of such a crucial game. Hitting back at his boss seemed the least wise of possible responses available to Zola, and added an intriguing subplot to the night. Perhaps it was Sullivan’s ploy all along to test Zola’s resolve; certainly his team had been performing with a worrying lack of cohesion.
If so, it got the desired response, and the manner in which Diamanti’s team-mates followed him to embrace their manager confirmed that while support for Zola was threatening to recede faster than his hairline, he retained the backing of the dressing room, the last port of call for any struggling manager. First the fans go, then the owners, then the players, and there appears little prospect of that happening.
The stylish manner of West Ham’s opener was fitting in that regard. Diamanti’s free-kick was of the sort that defined Zola in his playing days, and the former Livorno man is fast becoming the man West Ham turn to in their hour of need. His ability from a dead ball means it is hugely surprising that this was the first time he had scored from a free-kick in England.
Not that it has been for want of trying. Diamanti’s attempts to score free-kicks had come to resemble a more drawn out version of David Beckham’s for England against Greece in 2001, when the captain tried his luck several times before finally sending the ball into the top corner in stoppage time. Such had been his previous waywardness that Beckham had to usher Teddy Sheringham away from the ball at the vital moment, and at Upton Park on Wednesday night, it seemed as if Diamanti would cede responsibilities to Mido. Quality, not quantity, was required.
Diamanti arrived at West Ham last summer with a reputation as a dead ball specialist and in a quirk of fate, he scored two excellent free kicks against Birmingham in his first appearance for the reserves, so it remains a mystery why it has taken him so long to repeat the trick for the first team. Yet Diamanti is not one to hide.
The willingness to try the spectacular, to create, the refusal to settle for the prosaic will always ensures he is a threat and makes his inclusion by Zola worthwhile. The unpredictability can lead to a wild nature too and at times, he has opted for a lashed shot into orbit when a simple pass will do and his passion has boiled over to the extent that he managed to rip his own shirt up in disgust after missing a chance earlier in the season.
Ironically then it has been his deployment in an orthodox role on the left that has allowed him to settle and find his feet in the Premier League. With seven goals and several assists, West Ham have reason to be grateful for his wild charms and prowess at set pieces. While his unpredictability is appealing, it was Zola’s decision to get back to basics that enabled West Ham to beat a Birmingham side that arrived at Upton Park with only one defeat - against Chelsea - in their previous 18 games.
Lining up in a 4-4-2 formation, West Ham paired the combative Scott Parker and the excellent Radoslav Kovac together, and put a left-footer, Diamanti, on the left, and a right-footer, Valon Behrami, on the right. Mido complemented Carlton Cole, whose absence had been keenly felt, in attack.
With Jack Collison and Mark Noble joining Junior Stanislas and Ilan on the bench, West Ham also had four option ways to alter the game should the initial strategy not be working. A sturdy bench is a novelty at West Ham - consider, for example, who they had in reserve for their first home game this season: Peter Kurucz, Danny Gabbidon, James Tomkins Kovac, Frank Nouble, Zavon Hines and Josh Payne.
Unsurprisingly Birmingham, more confident, edged the first half and fashioned chances for Cameron Jerome, who shot wide, and Kevin Phillips, who was denied by Robert Green.
Yet once Diamanti’s moment of magic had picked the lock of one of the league’s most parsimonious defences, West Ham could relax and began to dominate. Gone were the triangles without a point and replaced with a more purposeful brand of football. West Ham’s record of scoring goals from inside the box in open play this season has been woeful, but they went some way to correcting this particularly infamous statistic with their second goal of the night.
Although Behrami will never be the most buccaneering of right midfielders, he and Julien Faubert can form an effective partnership down that flank. When the Swiss released Faubert on the overlap, his low cross was headed past the stranded Hart by Cole. A perfect goal to cap a perfect night for a relieved Zola.