Zola keen to keep stars

GIANFRANCO ZOLA has achieved his goal of finishing higher than West Ham did last season - his next is to persuade his top players that their future still lies at Upton Park, writes DAVE EVANS. The Hammers boss saw his team relegate sorry Middles-brough th

GIANFRANCO ZOLA has achieved his goal of finishing higher than West Ham did last season - his next is to persuade his top players that their future still lies at Upton Park, writes DAVE EVANS.

The Hammers boss saw his team relegate sorry Middles-brough thanks to a 2-1 victory on Sunday, but despite that, he was still met with questions about his more experienced players.

England centre half Matthew Upson has made no secret of the fact that he wants to play European football at the highest level, and if, like Craig Bellamy back in January, he asks to leave, then West Ham are unlikely to stand in his way.

The 30-year-old defender has made 76 appearances in claret and blue since his �6million move from Birmingham City in January 2007, putting in some outstanding performances this season in particular.


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Zola, however, attempted to pour cold water on the possibility of a move for the 14-cap international.

"I don't know anything about that," insisted the manager. "It looks to me that Matthew is very happy here and wants to stay, so it shouldn't be an issue for us."

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If Upson does want to leave, then it would certainly boost the West Ham coffers, but it is a very different issue with skipper Lucas Neill, whose contract runs out in the summer.

The 31-year-old Aussie is said to be asking for a one-year deal to take him up to the World Cup in South Africa, where he will play his last games for his national team, before quitting England and forming his own club down under.

Zola is a big fan of the experienced defender, but wages may be the stumbling block between Neill and the club as they continue to negotiate.

The ever-optimistic Italian though, is confident that a deal will be struck sooner rather than later, when he was asked if the club captain had played his last game for the Hammers.

"No, I don't think so," he said. "I think in the next few days there will be meetings and something positive will happen."

Zola has constructed a team with a large sprinkling of youngsters, but he knows just how important the experienced players around them are.

"It is vital," he explained. "The idea is to make a team where you have four or five experienced players and put around them young, talented players, so that they can grow up and make a team alive and fresh, that is what I want.

"Those experienced players have been very important because they are always out there spreading the right messages - they have been really terrific for us."

Now the season is over, Zola will also look at his playing staff and decide who to keep and who will be going out of the Upton Park exit door.

Strikers Diego Tristan and David Di Michele were both left on the bench against Boro on Sunday, but Zola was keen to point out that nothing should be read into his selection.

"No, really, I just wanted to play differently today. It doesn't mean anything, I haven't made any decisions yet," he said.

"To be honest, Di Michele probably deserved to play from the beginning. He has got my appreciation because he has played very well this season.

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