'To be honest, I love him' - Pablo Zabaleta heaps praise on Ireland U19 international Declan Rice
West Ham United full-back Pablo Zabaleta has praised Ireland underage defender Declan Rice for his confidence and enthusiasm in the Hammers opening round defeats to Manchester United and Southampton.
Rice was a 61st minute replacement for West Ham captain Mark Noble during the Irons 4-0 defeat at Old Trafford on the opening weekend of the season, with the 18-year-old earning high praise from Paul Merson, Phil Thomson and now Zabaleta for his cameo off the bench.
"To be honest, I love him," Zabaleta told the club's website.
"He’s young but he has got that personality that you need to play with the first team. He came on against Manchester United and he was always asking for the ball, switching the ball from one side to the other, he looks really confident and that’s good.
"I love young players coming through from the Academy and showing that they want to do well, so hopefully we can help him as much as we can, and I’m sure he will be a very important player for West Ham over the years to come."
Rice was subsequently rewarded with a start against Southampton on Saturday, a 3-2 loss at St. Mary's that rooted Slaven Bilic's side to the bottom of the table.
Despite the winless start to the season, Hammers manager Slaven Bilic detected positives largely inspired by his new striker Javier Hernandez.
Hernandez instinctively scored twice to take West Ham's 10 men level after they had fallen two goals behind and he had been asked to play on the left wing following Marko Arnautovic's reckless dismissal.
Only the concession of a late penalty, converted by Charlie Austin, denied the Hammers what would have been an impressive point one week after they were so poor in their 4-0 defeat at Manchester United, but Bilic recognised his persistence in chasing Mexico international Hernandez was paying off.
West Ham lost Carlos Tevez to Manchester United at the end of the same season, over 10 years ago, in which the retired Dean Ashton suffered an ankle injury from which he never truly recovered.
Since then and amid Andy Carroll's struggles for fitness they had lacked the prolific striker their ambitions demand, one Bilic revealed they had already missed out on when Hernandez previously rejected their advances.
"We wanted to get him when he left Manchester United for Leverkusen," said the manager of his £16million summer signing. "I called him then on the phone but he opted for Leverkusen.
"He called and said 'Thank you gaffer but I'm going to Germany but maybe we'll cross paths again' and now after two years it was like we weren't starting from zero.
"It helped make him choose us (this time). It was a disappointment then but like now we knew there were a few other clubs (interested).
"He doesn't have just one movement. He does a first movement, then a second, then third. He's so sharp over a few yards that it gives him the advantage. Mostly players who are quick don't have that movement or the other way round but he's got both."
*Additional reporting by Press Association