Squad strength a real plus

Gianfranco Zola has offered plenty of praise for his players before the high-profile trip to Liverpool on Monday night.

While the Barclays Premier League focus this past weekend has been on major derby meetings and some of English football's leading lights, Zola has been quick to emphasise the credentials of his own squad. Among them will be Craig Bellamy, with the striker sure to be keen to turn in a strong performance against the club he left to join West Ham United back in summer 2007.

"Craig is getting there," the manager said. "He has got enthusiasm and he wants to improve. I don't think he is very far [from his best]. Against Sunderland, he helped the team and the players a lot with his attitude. He was a little bit tired because he had played with the national team ... This week he has been brilliant in training and I am sure on Monday he can be one of the players that can change the game."

One of those who has publicly spoken about the impact of Bellamy on his own game is Freddie Sears and Zola is delighted with his progress. "He is still in the process of learning and he is getting better and better," he said. "The moment will come for him again. Even if he is not playing right now, he will have another chance I am sure and I believe that he is going to be better. We gave him a five-year contract because we believe he can be the future of the club and we trust in him."

The manager has had plenty of encouragement for his defence as a unit, describing them as "outstanding" while there is positive news on Kieron Dyer who is close to a playing return having been out since August 2007. "He is progressing very, very well," said Zola. "He is training the best he has this week and he is doing really well. It's been a very long time."