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Mar 22, 2010

Zola given two games to prove his worth

Gianfranco Zola has two games left to prove he is the right man to manage West Ham with crucial games coming up against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Stoke City.

The unhappy Hammers are rapidly losing patience after a catastrophic run of four straight defeats which now sees the East End club in peril of the drop.

Zola has to pull West Ham out of their current slide in two crunch games this week. If they can get positive results against Wolves, on Tuesday night, and Stoke then he will be safe.

The West Ham board expect victory in the relegation six-pointer against Wolves with the backing of the Upton Park crowd. Defeat would signal the alarm bells while a draw would mean the Hammers have to beat Stoke, or Zola's future would be hanging by a thread.

New owners David Gold and David Sullivan regard the possibility of relegation as totally unthinkable. Sullivan said last month that dropping into the Championship would be "Armageddon" for the club. They have relied on Zola since the takeover at the turn of the year, believing he can galvanise the players to ensure safety.

Zola is one of the most popular figures in the game, but the former Chelsea legend is running out of time to save his first job in Premier League management.

Four points would be acceptable from the two games this week, but a defeat and a draw, or even two draws, will cause complete panic. Gold and Sullivan have invested £50 million in a club that cannot afford to slip into the Championship.

Soccernet recently broke the story of Zola's future being in grave doubt with Slaven Bilic and Mark Hughes the main contenders for the job at the end of the season.

Gold and Sullivan had made it clear they had intended to stick with Zola at least until the summer, and possibly beyond, depending on the outcome of the final stages of the season.

The debt has been slashed from £110 million to £95 million, but the club simply cannot afford the drop. The big question is whether they would be forced to act should the situation get any worse with the Hammers hovering just one place above the drop zone.

That may become an option if Zola cannot reverse the present run of form against Wolves and Stoke. The board may be forced into an emergency re-think, even though it would be costly to part with a manager on a £1.9 million-a-year contract. Relegation, though, could potentially threaten the financial stability of the entire club.

Zola's relationship with the new owners has been strained since the start, with Soccernet reporting that Zola might consider quitting in the summer. Soccernet suggested recently that Hughes would be the first choice of the new West Ham regime, marginally ahead of Bilic. Former England boss Steve McClaren is the latest name being linked to Zola's job. McClaren has regained some of his lost credibility, after his reign as England coach, in Holland with FC Twente, who are in pole position to win the Dutch title.

While there are doubts whether Hughes would take the Hammers job, there are no such doubts about Bilic. The Croatia coach would welcome a move back to West Ham after a short but successful stint at the club from 1996-97, and he remains a cult figure at Upton Park.

But he remains a gamble as a novice in club management. Bilic only had a brief spell at Hadjuk Split. Gold and Sullivan may need an experienced head.

Zola is managing the team in difficult circumstances, and while the new owners have taken this into account, the D-Day for Zola is rapidly approaching.

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