West Ham United manager Gianfranco Zola has warned his players not to be distracted by the storm surrounding Craig Bellamy's return to Upton Park with Manchester City on 1 March. Bellamy left West Ham in controversial circumstances during the January transfer window after refusing to take part in a training session in an attempt to engineer a move away from east London.
The Wales striker was reported to have told Zola that he did not want to play for the Hammers again after they refused to sell him to London rivals Tottenham Hotspur and he eventually joined City for £14 million. Hammers fans have already been turning the air blue with taunts about Bellamy since the move and he is certain to suffer a hostile reception tomorrow. But Zola does not want the fans' reaction to turn the occasion into a circus, because the Italian is more concerned with getting his team back on track after their midweek FA Cup fifth round replay defeat at Middlesbrough.
"I hope he [Bellamy] can have a good reception, but that is not down to me," Zola said. "However, it is not my concern. It is important we focus, I focus, on winning the game.
"He is a big player and he is one of the City players we will have to look after," he added. "But I have already spoken a lot about him leaving and now that is it on that subject."
Bellamy's transfer was possible due to the vast resources of City's Abu Dhabi-based owners. But the cash available to City manager Mark Hughes has created raised expectations at Eastlands. Bellamy took his City goal tally to five goals in seven games on Thursday to help the club into the last 16 of the UEFA Cup with a 4-3 aggregate success over Copenhagen. And Hughes believes his players are beginning to handle the expectation that now comes with being part of such a wealthy club.
"We have a group of players who understand the demands that are going to be placed on them now and in the future," he said. "The expectation levels have been way ahead of any Manchester City team probably in the history of the club and we're dealing with it.
"The aim is to get a consistent run of form away from home, as we have found it difficult on the road. We have another opportunity to show what we can do when we face West Ham," said Hughes. "Our problem in the past is we have been unable to see out games. We have not had the right tools. You need a different mentality and a different approach when you are away from home. But we are learning as a group all the time and gaining experience."