Gianfranco Zola has emerged as the firm favourite to become the next manager of West Ham United. The 42-year-old Italian has hugely impressed club executives with his ideas and enthusiasm for the job and his name will figure at the top of a reduced shortlist which will be presented to the West Ham owner and chairman, Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, this evening.
His main rival to succeed Alan Curbishley, who quit last week, is Michael Laudrup, who is due to hold a meeting with West Ham today, while former Italy coach Roberto Donadoni also impressed in an interview last Friday. Unless matters drastically change in the next 24 hours Slaven Bilic, despite having firm backing from the board, is out of the running, sources said.
West Ham interviewed John Collins at the end of last week but he is no longer being considered while others on the original shortlist, Gérard Houllier and the current Denmark coach, Morten Olsen, have been ruled out without being spoken to. The final candidate, Roberto Mancini, who is in dispute with Internazionale after being sacked during the summer, also wanted to be considered but his wage demands proved prohibitive.
It is Zola who certainly appears to have the edge, with West Ham hoping to make a formal announcement before Saturday's Premier League away match against West Bromwich Albion, although caretaker manager Kevin Keen will take charge of that game. "Someone will have to impress greatly to beat Zola," a club source said yesterday.
Zola met West Ham's technical director, Gianluca Nani, on Saturday and then with the chief executive, Scott Duxbury, in Rome. Both were impressed and it is thought to be significant that, so far, he is the only candidate who has had a second interview.
West Ham had hoped to speak to Bilic as well and while the club are aware of the sensitivities of approaching the 39-year-old, with Croatia's vital World Cup qualification match against England coming up on Wednesday, they are believed to have become frustrated. They claim there has been no clear message as to whether he wants to be considered. "Bilic has definitely slipped in the running," a source said.
There have also been suggestions from some quarters that Bilic would like West Ham to wait until January before he could take over but the club, who had suggested sending a representative to Croatia to speak to him this week, have ruled that out.
West Ham could be accused of wanting to act with haste – imagine the outcry if a club approached the England manager before such a game – but they are confident the calibre of their shortlist justifies their actions.
Zola, who enjoyed a successful and popular career as a player at Chelsea, has made no secret that he would like to manage in the Premier League. West Ham have been much impressed by the way he has gathered coaching experience, especially with the Italian Under-21 side.
Donadoni is out of work after being sacked as Italy coach following their disappointing Euro 2008 campaign, while Laudrup is also without a club after quitting the Spanish side Getafe at the end of last season. The Dane came close to being appointed manager of Blackburn Rovers before losing out to Paul Ince, while on Saturday he was in Russia speaking to Spartak Moscow about taking over there.
Yesterday the West Ham director Mike Lee confirmed that Zola and Donadoni had "shone" during interview. Lee also did not rule out Bilic being approached or him staying as Croatia coach on a part-time basis for the October matches.
"We are moving towards a short shortlist," he said. "Slaven Bilic could potentially be on that shortlist but it depends very much upon his availability."