New Year Treat At Ipswich

ALAN Pardew will be hoping to make it a very Happy New Year for the Hammers with a win against Ipswich at Portman Road on Saturday, a victory that would be the perfect start to his side's 2005 promotion quest.

After dropping out of the play-off places on Tuesday for the first time since August, the Hammers will be hoping to make inroads into the 10 point gap between themselves and League leaders Ipswich as soon as possible - and what better place to start than with a win in East Anglia.

"The dividing line between the top of the table and the chasing pack is still pretty thin," insisted Alan, "and we have a great chance of gaining some ground on Ipswich on Saturday.

"They're a good side who will hurt you if you give them the time and space to play. Joe Royle has done an excellent job there, he's assembled a very strong group of players who work hard for each other.

"At the moment they are favourites for promotion and rightly so, because they've been in great form of late. But we can make our mark on the promotion chase with a good performance there."

The scars of West Ham United's magnificent Play Off semi-final victory over Ipswich are still raw in East Anglia. On a memorable night at Upton Park goals from  Matty Etherington and Christian Dailly cancelled out Ipswich's 1-0 first-leg lead, and along with it their promotion aspirations. The memory of that defeat should certainly add some spice to an already mouth-watering New Year's Day clash.

"They will be really determined to knock us back," admitted Pards. "The Play Off semi-final was a huge occasion and I'm sure the wounds from that will resurface when we visit Portman Road on Saturday.

"Of course, we have already played them at Upton Park this season, when we drew 1-1, so that might take some heat out of the occasion.

"But I'm sure the players and fans of Ipswich have been waiting to get us at Portman Road so they can avenge what must have been a very painful experience.

"We'll have to be weary of that backlash and make sure we don't get sucked into the intensity of the occasion."

Examining the threat posed by Ipswich, Pards confirmed that it was the Tractor Boys' front pair of Shefki Kuqi and Darren Bent who could do the damage.

"The front two for Ipswich are really dangerous," confessed Pards, "and we'll have to defend very well on Saturday.

"Kuqi is having a great season and you have to appreciate how far he has come and admit that he deserves the success he is getting. Darren Bent is a very quick, athletic player who can also finish well and he showed how dangerous he is when we played Ipswich in the Play Offs last season.

"Ipswich have without doubt one of the best strike partnerships in the Championship, proved by the fact that Kuqi and Bent have scored 24 goals between them already this season.

"That's bettered only by Wigan's Nathan Ellington and Jason Roberts, who have scored a combined 26 goals so far.

"But in Marlon Harewood and Teddy Sheringham we've got a strike partnership to match anyone in the Championship. Between them Marlon and Teddy have scored 20 goals this season, and that's with Teddy missing a number of games because of injury.

"If they can both stay fit I'm sure we'll see that total rise considerably over the second half of the season."

Indeed, fitness seems to be the only thing capable of stifling Teddy Sheringham's goalscoring touch this season. The former England star has notched 11 goals from 16 appearances, including four in his last five games since returning from injury. However, after being withdrawn from the action at Rotherham, Pards admitted that Teddy was a doubt for Saturday's game, as is midfield general Steve Lomas.

"We are waiting to make a decision on Teddy and Steve," explained Alan. "Teddy took a bad knock on the ankle at Rotherham, while Steve suffered a calf injury and both are touch and go for Ipswich.

"We've also had a couple of players suffering from flu, including Anton Ferdinand who was forced to miss the Rotherham game, and also Nigel Reo-Coker. But we're hopeful that both of them will be fit enough to play."