Zola: We can handle Cole absence

Gianfranco Zola is confident the loss of Carlton Cole to injury will not derail West Ham as they look to maintain their strong run on Saturday.

Zola has revealed England striker Cole is likely to be out of action until the end of January with the knee ligament injury sustained in the Hammers’ 5-3 win against Burnley last weekend.

Cole, 26, is the club’s top scorer in the league this season with seven goals and West Ham will now be relying on Mexico striker Guillermo Franco, as well as fellow forwards Zavon Hines and the fit-again Alessandro Diamanti, to hit the net over the festive period and into 2010.

Zola has seen confidence return to his side, who have climbed out of the Premier League relegation zone after losing just one of their last six league matches.

And the Italian is backing them to overcome the absence of the talismanic Cole, arguably the team’s key player, when title-chasing Manchester United visit Upton Park.

“I see this as an opportunity now to find other ways to keep the goals coming, starting from tomorrow,” said Zola. “I think we’ll like finding other solutions. And what’s encouraging as that in the last few games against the top teams, we’ve done well and they’ve been close games.

“I know we’re playing Manchester United, but you need to see the positive side of it. They are a great team and the champions, but they’re not unbeatable and it’s down to us to exploit their weaknesses.”

Cole’s injury may increase the pressure on Zola to add to his strikeforce in the January transfer window.

West Ham have been linked with a move for Luca Toni, who has not been a regular starter for Bayern Munich this season, and Zola has expressed his admiration for the tall Italy striker.

Zola, however, is adamant he has the answer on his own doorstep in Franco, the Mexico star who is starting to find his feet in the Premier League after his summer switch to the Londoners.

“He (Toni) is a player who has got experience, has scored goals and has presence in the box, and he might be good for us,” said the former Italy forward.

“There is speculation but I don’t like talking about players that aren’t here. I’d rather talk about how I can face the situation with the players I’ve got.

“What Guillermo Franco is doing right now is good enough. He just needs to keep doing what he is doing. I am happy with him.”

Having beaten Aston Villa, drawn with Arsenal and lost only narrowly to Tottenham and Liverpool already this season, Zola insists he is relishing the visit of another of the league’s big guns.

“I have no concerns about tomorrow as I think my team will play well,” he added. “The pressure is on Manchester United – they have to win to chase Chelsea. Not many people are expecting anything from us and it is these kind of conditions where you can find surprises.

“We have a good tradition (against United). It’s not an easy task but that’s why I like to play games like this.”

United are five points behind league leaders Chelsea in the title race, with Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool, Villa and Manchester City in the chasing pack behind.

Zola sees only Liverpool being able to make up the necessary ground on the top two.

“You tend to look at the moment and you think Chelsea,” said Zola, a former Blues player.

“And the two teams who are there look like the more reliable ones. But I still fancy Liverpool getting into it and they have a chance.”