14th May 1998


Zola has instant impact as Chelsea fly the flag

 

FROM Stamford Bridge to Stockholm; the blue flag flew high over Europe last night. Gianfranco Zola's wonderful goal, a masterpiece of anticipation and execution, swept Chelsea to the Cup-Winners' Cup, so echoing the feats of Osgood, Cooke and Co 27 years ago.

This was a magical night, a rhapsody in blue with the final's technical flaws forgotten amid the majesty of Zola's 71st-minute strike and the ecstatic celebrations it precipitated. As the Chelsea masses chorused their delight, swaying on the terraces in another echo of the Osgood era, the players and coaching staff embarked on some sustained revelry at the final whistle.

Dan Petrescu, dismissed late on, donned a straw hat and danced a jig with Roberto Di Matteo. Graham Rix, whose 70th-minute introduction of Zola decided the game, hugged Frank Leboeuf and then hoisted up the Frenchman. Then they all joined hands and ran towards their fans, diving full length en masse, medals gleaming around their necks while the Cup bounced in their midst. This was line-dancing gone mad.

And then a special moment, Gianluca Vialli, Chelsea's player-manager, broke away from the gadding crowd. He celebrated on his own, leaping up and down, punching the air, a man intoxicated by his players' achievements. Since being appointed Ruud Gullit's successor on Feb 12, Vialli has delivered the Cup-Winners' and Coca-Cola Cups. If Arsène Wenger completes the Double on Saturday, the season will have had a clean sweep by foreign managers.

This superb success by Vialli and Rix, Zola and the indefatigable Dennis Wise affords England another UEFA Cup place, to be taken by Aston Villa. It also gives the Londoners a fixture against Real Madrid or Juventus.

Vialli's side, probably re-inforced by Pierluigi Casiraghi, will meet the winners of next week's European Cup showdown in the UEFA Super Cup final on Aug 28. Chelsea fans will enjoy the trip. The match is in Monaco.

The supporters took over Stockholm, flight after flight descending from blue skies to disgorge their raucous cargo. Hotels were so overcrowded that one even rented out its sauna as a bedroom.

The urban hymns of west London's finest could be heard down every avenue and alley. The neat streets around the Rasunda resounded to Chelsea chants. The stadium itself, the setting for Brazil's 1958 World Cup triumph, was decked largely in blue. 'Chelsea - Flying the flag for England', declared one banner. 'Vialli for Pope' demanded another. Player-Pope perhaps.

Chelsea's Italian leader had elected to start without Zola for tactical reasons. His subtlety was missed as a match characterised by occasional mistakes developed. Chances fell their way: they just lacked the finishing touch. Within five minutes, Chelsea could have scored but Di Matteo, meeting Gustavo Poyet's knockdown with his left foot, dragged his shot wide.

Chelsea's problems were partly self-inflicted. An attempted clearance by Steve Clarke proved the very stuff of which defenders' nightmares are made. The sliced ball flew directly to an unmarked Fredi Bobic who wasted a fine situation by firing wide from right to left.

Bobic, Stuttgart's red-booted captain, then invited Balakov to run at Chelsea's defence. He outstripped Clarke, his run taking him deep into Chelsea's box, only to be denied by Ed de Goey's outstanding save at whites-of -the-eyes range.

Krassimir Balakov was threatening to run the show, to embarrass Chelsea in front of their feverishly expectant fans. Vialli's side had to take action. Gradually, Wise and Di Matteo began dropping back to protect their back-four, so filling the space Balakov was attempting to exploit.

Wise responded to this new responsibility in typically forthright fashion bringing down a charging Balakov. Wise was cautioned, although not the Bulgarian who kicked out at Chelsea's captain. Wise was proving an influential figure, tackling stoutly and often propelling his team-mates forwards.

On the occasions they could elude Thomas Berthold, Chelsea did create some chances. Tore Andre Flo lifted a header on to the roof of the net. Flo then sent Vialli running at Stuttgart's defence. Not for the first time, Berthold was there to block.

Chelsea finished the half by far the stronger. Poyet, covering masses of ground, went close before Wise volleyed less than a yard wide. After an early second-half scare when an unmarked Bobic almost turned in Zvonimir Soldo's cross-shot, Chelsea began to threaten Franz Wohlfahrt's goal, with Wise and Danny Granville hinting at what was to come from Zola.

Chelsea's fans had been calling for Mark Hughes. Instead, Vialli and Rix sent Zola scurrying into the fray to replace Flo. How inspired this proved. Zola raced on to Wise's fine pass through the middle. One touch from Zola nudged the ball forward into the box and, as Wohlfahrt advanced, the Italian thumped a rising drive into the net. He had been on the pitch for 22 seconds. "This is the greatest moment, of my life," he said later.

The night was only marginally soured by Petrescu's late dismissal for lunging at Murat Yakin. Gerhard Poschner also departed, for a double dose of dissent in the final minute as the Chelsea celebrations intensified.

Chelsea: De Goey; Clarke, Duberry Leboeuf, Granville;

Petrescu, Di Matteo, Wise, Poyet (Newton 81); Flo (Zola 70), Vialli. Subs: Hitchcock (g), M Hughes, Myers, Charvet, Morris. Booked: Wise. Sent off. Petrescu.

VfB Stuttgart: Wohlfahrt; Yakin; Schneider (Endress),

Berthold; Haber (Djordjevic 74), Soldo, Poschner, Hagner (Ristic 77); Balakov; Bobic, Akpoborie. Subs: Ziegler (g), Becker, Listzes, Stojkovski. Booked: Akpoborie, Poschner. Sent off, Poschner.

Referee: S Braschi (Italy).


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