LIVERPOOL // Bill Shankly, the former Liverpool manager, once said: "Football is not a matter of life and death; it's much more important than that." It was ironic that just across from the Anfield home where Shankly carved his legendary status, Gianfranco Zola pondered similar thoughts to highlight the importance of the final five games in relegation-threatened West Ham's season. A draw at Everton yesterday, after twice coming back from behind, put the club one point above the bottom three and has filled him with hope after a tortuous week for him and his players.
The Italian decided to stay on as manager despite a sixth successive defeat last weekend, but was berated when he and his players took three days off. They responded in the right manner at Goodison with Ilan's leveller coming three minutes from time. "All this criticism has made us stronger," said Zola. "It's the right way to respond. Other things we cannot stop, but what matters is what we did on the pitch.
"It's great encouragement for me and everybody. The last five games, I won't say it's a matter of life and death, but it's very close; we know what football is like. "It's a difficult situation, but we don't want to stop fighting. That's what we all said to each other. We don't give up and this was a perfect example of that." No one typified that more than his captain Scott Parker. You could see the pain etched on his face as he pleaded with Howard Webb, the referee, not to book him for a late lunge on Tim Cahill.
He will now be suspended for the games against Sunderland and Liverpool. His absence will hurt his side. "He leads by example," added Zola. "We are going to miss him. I am sure with the spirit we will work harder in his absence." Parker came out for the second half with his right hand strapped and possibly broken, but his determination and desire, in defence or attack, unabated. This was a man you want on your side in such a situation. The same, perhaps, cannot be said of Mido, who should have left the penalty-taking duties to Parker.
The Egyptian strode up confiden-tly for the 37th-minute spot kick, but struck it weakly to Tim Howard's right and the American goalkeeper pushed it out. The opportunity came from great break from Parker. Crisp passing and good movement followed before Parker slipped the final ball through for Carlton Cole. He and Sylvain Distin tangled as they entered the box and the Everton defender was punished, but escaped a red card.
Mido, though, wasted the opportunity to equalise the 24th minute opener from Diniyar Bilyaletdinov. That opener came down to three headers. Jonathan Spector failed to clear properly, Cahill headed back into the box where the little Russian winger flicked it past Robert Green. But Everton never took control as expected for a side chasing an eighth successive home league win. "We didn't play well enough," said manager David Moyes.
Instead, West Ham displayed character and creativity. Mark Noble worked his way into the box and improvised with a chip that sailed over Howard and clipped the bar. He followed it with a corner on the hour that caused a scramble in the box and Manuel da Costa poked the loose ball past Howard. Louis Saha should have had a penalty when he was caught by Da Costa's high challenge - a decision that left Moyes dismayed.
But Yakubu put Everton back ahead when he headed in a hanging left-wing cross from Leighton Baines. West Ham's second equaliser, though, was worthy of three points. Julien Faubert made a driving run down the right and crossed superbly for Ilan to plant a diving header into the net. firstname.lastname@example.org