Pards relishing the challenge ahead

'A challenge to relish' is how Alan Pardew describes the clash against Arsenal on Sunday, and he insists that Hammers will approach the game in the same positive manner that led to them taking four points off the Gunners last season.

With a spring in the step following the 2-1 win over Blackburn Rovers on Sunday, the Hammers boss is looking for his players to build on that success and prove themselves once again against Arsene Wenger's team in this weekend's London derby.

Pards says: "The mood has still been good around the training ground in recent weeks, but yes, there have been more smiles this week as you would expect after our win over Blackburn. Certainly a lot more buoyancy has returned, but that's what a win can do.

"You could say there has been two or three factors for us to work from this week. As well as the victory, there has been knowing who the opposition is coming up and relishing the challenge ahead of us rather than fearing it."

That challenge was certainly passed with flying colours last season, as the newly-promoted Hammers secured a creditable 0-0 draw against Arsenal at home, then followed that with an unforgettable 3-2 away victory in February - in the last ever match between the two sides at Highbury.

"In the two games last season, we competed very well with them," says Pards. "The home game was very tight, and I recall that Thierry Henry wasn't playing that day. In the away match he was playing, but we had the win and a great night.

"Knowing Arsenal, that will fuel them to get a better response, but the most important thing for us is remembering how we approached those two games and go about doing that again.

"You have to go for the no-fear option, it's about getting a result against them and we will go about the game in the same positive manner, especially being at home."

Pards said he has a great regard for Gunners boss Arsene Wenger and the way his team play, but all that is important for him is making sure that the Hammers' style of play is the winner.

He said: "Arsenal are very easy on the eye with the way they play, they have some beautiful players and have quality individuals in their team that can at times pull a rabbit out of a hat and that's what you have to suppress when playing them.

"I have seen them play quite a bit and studied them closely over the last four or five years. I admire what Arsene has done and have a good relationship with him. I have met up with him a few times, even when I was at Reading.

"While I am a big fan of how they play - as are most managers - I don't think we could ever play in their style. I believe we are a little bit more direct and dynamic at times in the way we approach the game, but certainly there are points in their play that I'm sure everyone can take from - two of them would be their patience and incisiveness with their passing."

With the exception of long-term absentee Dean Ashton, Pards has virtually a fully-fit squad to pick from tomorrow, and says that every player is not only wanting to be in that starting 11, but also excited at the prospect once again of pitching themselves against last season's Champions League finalists.

"I think this is pretty close to the full compliment we have had all season, with the exception of Deano of course," he says. "For me that is a reflection that the guys are putting themselves up for the fight.

"There is no player that doesn't want to be picked, they all want to play in what is a blue riband game. Teddy did a great job for us last week, for example, and will be looking for a similar impact against Arsenal.

"Since we have been in the Premiership, we have responded well to playing against teams like Arsenal. Perhaps that's the youth in our side - they are coming up against a side like this and want to stretch themselves. I tell them that the challenge is always more rewarding when it is a difficult task.

"The message I have given to my players this week is 'how are we going to hurt Arsenal?' We have worked on things Arsenal do in particular during training this week and all of my players are simply looking forward to the challenge. I have been looking at the game with my staff to try and find the right tactical formation to win the match, because that's all that matters to me.

"Even on the run we have had recently, I don't think there has been one match where my team didn't try and take the game to the opposition in an offensive manner. That is the positive approach I like to take and that's what we will do come Sunday."

by Laura Burkin