Zola impressed by O'Neill

West Ham United manager Gianfranco Zola has paid tribute to opposite number Martin O'Neill ahead of this afternoon's Premier League trip to Aston Villa.

O'Neill's Villa go into the game nine points ahead of the Hammers in fifth place, having spent much of the season inside the top-four and chasing a spot in next season's UEFA Champions League.

A run of seven league matches without a win has seen the Villans drop behind a resurgent Arsenal, but Zola was quick to lavish praise on Northern Irishman O'Neill for the job he has done at Villa Park.

Villa finished the 2005/06 season in 16th place before ending 2006/07 - O'Neill's first season in charge - in eleventh. It has been similar progress by the Hammers, who finished 15th in 2006/07 before ending up in tenth in the last campaign and are now looking to emulate Villa's qualification for Europe.

Last term, O'Neill led Villa to sixth place and a place in this season's UEFA Cup, despite spending comparatively little money and working with a small playing squad.

As a player, Zola faced O'Neill during his successful spell as manager of Leicester City, and the Hammers boss knows just what an astute tactician the man he will lock horns with this weekend can be.

"What they have done is quite exceptional. They were in the top four in the league and pushing for a top-two position actually. So, they played an unbelievable season when you consider they were fighting against monsters because Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea were there. They each have 25 or 26 champions and what Villa were doing was quite incredible. It's difficult to keep up the pace with them. I still consider Aston Villa's season to be an incredible season."

Zola is eager to emulate Villa's achievements by pushing for a top-seven finish, but admitted it would be more difficult to overhaul the 'big-four' of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal in the short-term.

"It would be something fantastic for the club. It's going to be very difficult to become a monster like Manchester United because we don't have the possibilities but we want to build something differently. Maybe it's going to be a longer-term project but one day we want to be competing with those teams."

To do so, Zola admitted he had studied the blueprint of Arsenal. The Gunners have reached the semi-finals of both the UEFA Champions League and FA Cup this season on the back of the skill of manager Arsene Wenger in nurturing talented young players.

Zola is looking to follow Wenger's example, and has made a good start in handing first-team opportunities to the likes of Jack Collison, James Tomkins, Junior Stanislas and Freddie Sears this season.

"I said straight away that Arsenal was one of the models that this club was looking up to. That's what we want to do. I think it's working ok for the moment and we're looking forward to improving. Certainly Arsenal is a team that I admire very much so obviously to try to do what they do is something we would like to do."