Di Michele and West Ham quick to heed Zola message
West Ham United 3 Newcastle United 1
Gianfranco Zola passed his first managerial test with ease and can look forward to the next few as West Ham continue a favourable run of fixtures that does not take a more taxing turn until Arsenal and Manchester United loom up in the space of four days at the end of next month.
Of course, any club due to meet Newcastle in their current state of disarray – that means Tottenham, Blackburn, Everton, Manchester City and yes, Sunderland – must be rubbing their hands. But Zola, taking charge of a team for the first time, was spot on for tactics, team selection and man-management.
With Dean Ashton as well as Craig Bellamy missing, he adapted the formation to a 4-3-2-1 that offered solidity in the centre of the pitch, plus a threat from the two support strikers, Matthew Etherington and David Di Michele, that took Newcastle aback. Etherington's pace, Di Michele's invention and the fluid movement of both were more than the visitors could cope with. In addition, Carlton Cole at the top of the Christmas tree was far more than mere decoration this time, so much so that Zola, once his attacking partner at Chelsea, mentioned him as potential England material.
"It is a bit different," he said of his first week as a football manager. "So far I have enjoyed it very much. It is a difficult challenge but I like challenges, testing myself on new things and I am sure I can do well at it.
"The hardest thing is that you cannot play everyone," Zola added. "I know that sometimes I may have to be unpopular, but as long as I make sure all of my choices are honest ones, there should not be a problem."
Dealing with unpopularity certainly would be a novelty for the little Sardinian. Calum Davenport, culpable in a 3-2 defeat at West Bromwich the previous week, and the unloved Luis Boa Morte were among those disappointed on Saturday, but events justified both changes; above all when Boa Morte, on as a late substitute for the far superior Etherington, made a horrible hash of a one-on-one with Shay Given.
Di Michele, a Roman who has done the rounds of seven Italian clubs in his 15-year career, surprised Newcastle but not Zola, who said: "I have seen him in Italy many times doing unbelievable things, but then coming in front of the goalkeeper and missing. I told him he needs to improve his finishing. Which shows he listens to me very carefully."
The message certainly got home as his countryman scored the first two goals of the new era at Upton Park, then laid on the third for Etherington. Clipping the ball over Steven Taylor before driving it past Given was pure Paolo Di Canio.
Newcastle's Chris Hughton, who could find himself standing in as manager until somebody meets owner Mike Ashley's asking price for the club – it may be a long wait – did not fault his team's effort, although supporters have done so in recent weeks, but he was forced to admit: "We cannot defend like we did today. It goes without saying that the quicker a manager is appointed the better, so we all know where we stand." Michael Owen was the visitors' one bright spark, even if his beautifully taken goal with 23 minutes left failed to inspire his team-mates.
The two clubs may both have had managers resigning on successive days recently because of lack of control over transfer dealings, but the only other comparison between how they look this morning is in the matter of absent players. Saturday's game suggested how much better West Ham are coping, and being forced to use the talented teenage striker Freddie Sears in tomorrow's Carling Cup tie at Watford if Cole is unfit would not concern them.
Newcastle's wounds, as so often, include shootings in the foot: the midfielders Joey Barton and Danny Guthrie will be missing for a while yet because of wild disciplinary indiscretions and options remain limited for Wednesday's cup tie at home to Spurs. "It's a massive game," Hughton said of his former club's visit, "and the best way of lifting morale is to get a win."
Goals: Di Michele (8) 1-0; Di Michele (37) 2-0; Etherington (53) 3-0; Owen (67) 3-1.
West Ham United (4-3-2-1): Green; Faubert, Neill, Upson, Ilunga; Behrami, Parker (Mullins, 71), Noble; Di Michele, Etherington (Boa Morte,
73); Cole (Sears, 87). Substitutes not used: Lastuvka (gk), Lopez, Davenport, Reid.
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given; Edgar (Bassong, 59), Taylor, Coloccini, N'Zogbia; Geremi, Cacapa (Gonzalez, 81), Butt, Duff; Owen, Xisco. Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), Ameobi, Tozer, Doninger, Donaldson.
Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).
Booked: West Ham Neill; Newcastle Taylor, N'Zogbia.
Man of the match: Di Michele.