x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Hughes and Zola don't look back in anger

Old teammates have cause to reminisce and Zola could be forgiven for envying Hughes' position as he aims to keep West Ham afloat.

Focused and serious, Mark Hughes' words and demeanour rarely suggest he succumbs to nostalgia. Despite a quarter of a century in football, the Manchester City manager normally gives the impression that his attention is concentrated on the next game.

Now the next game is West Ham's visit to Eastlands tonight. Yet should the Welshman choose to hark back, there are reasons to reminisce. One is in the opposing dugout: in their two seasons as Chelsea colleagues, Hughes and Gianfranco Zola formed a strike partnership that was a potent blend of force and finesse. Then there is the significance of West Ham in Hughes' career. His final league game for Manchester United came at Upton Park in 1995, a 1-1 draw that meant the title went to Blackburn instead. Given City's expenditure, it appears almost quaint Kenny Dalglish's side were accused of buying the title, though their costliest player, Chris Sutton, was purchased for £5 million (Dh30m).

Thirteen years later, Hughes' first Premier League win as City manager came against West Ham, a 3-0 triumph garnished by goals from Daniel Sturridge and Elano. The identity of the scorers hints at the changes in the subsequent year: only Micah Richards and Stephen Ireland of the team selected that day have started City games this season. It already appears a different age. Now City are looking forward, taking "the project", to use the ever-present phrase, to the next stage. West Ham could have provided a prototype; instead they appear a lesson of what not to do. Flush with cash after the Icelandic takeover of the previous year and their ambition evident, they spent heavily in 2007. Hindsight shows too much of the investment was on players either in decline, with questionable fitness records or both. Whenever Zola is compelled to sell now, he has cause to regret Alan Curbishley's faith in Freddie Ljungberg and Kieron Dyer.

While there were indications of past City interest in Scott Parker and Matthew Upson, only Craig Bellamy has been transferred between the two clubs (Carlos Tevez's indirect route has been comprehensively documented). Purchased by West Ham when they were affluent, Bellamy moved to Manchester in January, symbolising the fortunes of the two clubs. One must sell, the other can buy. For some, Bellamy ranked as the most questionable of Hughes' additions.

His temperament can still be debated after his added-time altercation with a Manchester United fan at Old Trafford last week, but his talent cannot. Two superlative strikes ended notions of favouritism about his recruitment. With Emmanuel Adebayor completing his three-match ban tonight, Bellamy retains his importance. The wisdom of opting to own five forwards has become apparent in the absence of a trio of them. Now, with Roque Santa Cruz available for a belated debut and Adebayor's imminent return, options are starting to abound for Hughes.

Like his fellow former Blackburn forward, Bellamy, Santa Cruz is very much a Hughes favourite. Like Adebayor, he adds a physical element to the forward line; given his own talents as a player, it is understandable that Hughes places an understandable emphasis on power. Yet the Manchester derby suggested the diminutive trio of Bellamy, Carlos Tevez and Shaun Wright-Phillips provide a pace and a persistence to pose problems.

Speed may also be West Ham's most potent advantage. Despite the 3-2 defeat to Liverpool last week, the winger Zavon Hines tormented Jamie Carragher, adding to the considerable reputation of Jamaican sprinters. The Mexico international Guillermo Franco could be given a debut today but he, unlike City's contingent of strikers, arrived on a free transfer. Whereas Hughes has been permitted to spend, Zola has had to look within elsewhere for answers. "Both of us are under pressure for different reasons," the West Ham manager said. "He obviously knows that, with the budget he's got and the team he's got, he has to perform and produce good results and this is a pressure. For me, I have all the time to think and find solutions. This situation is making the club more creative."

Creativity was always a forte of his as a player. But as West Ham, who have had an imposing set of fixtures to start their season, are in the relegation zone, Zola could be forgiven for looking back wistfully to the days when he and Hughes were partners in a formidable Chelsea attack. rjolly@thenational.ae Man City v West Ham, KO 11pm, Showsports 1 & 2