Football: Talisman with a talent for tormenting Englishmen

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The Independent Online
Do you man-mark him, isolate him or just kick him? Gianfranco Zola scored the goal that beat England at Wembley in February and is the man most likely to beat them again.

Guy Hodgson canvasses opinion on how you counter the diminutive Italian.

It seems a ridiculous assumption now, but one man and one match told Gianfranco Zola he would never prosper in the Premiership. Intriguingly, the instrument of the Italian's despair will be available to England in Rome tonight.

Zola did not play in the European Cup-Winners' Cup final in 1994. He was on the pitch for Parma that night in Copenhagen all right, but he did not figure, such was the suffocating effect of Tony Adams.

The uncompromising Arsenal captain bullied, marked, tackled and headed clear every time the ball went near Zola, leaving Parma, the holders, deprived of their play-maker and beaten. The bruising and unequal contest left its mark, in all senses of the word, on the Italian.

"It was a joke," Zola, 5ft 6in and 10st 4lb, said. "Adams did not even have to jump to win the ball. That's why I thought I'd be too small to play in England, that all defenders would be like that and that I'd have no chance. But I have grown in more ways than one since then."

His award as Footballer of the Year last May confirms that, and a look at Britain's newspapers this week provide further endorsement. Daily photographs of the Chelsea striker have appeared like "man most wanted" posters.

His Premiership opponents have quickly learned to appreciate the Italian. Alex Ferguson said after Zola had scored a delightful goal against Manchester United last spring: "He's better than I thought he was." It is something a lot of opponents have discovered since his late arrival in Serie A with Napoli at the age of 23.

Deft, strong, difficult to intimidate, but above all bursting with imagination, he joined forces with Diego Maradona to help Napoli win an Italian title and was anointed by the Argentine as his successor. For Parma, Chelsea and Italy since he has brought verve and dangerous unpredictability.

For his part Zola has greatly enjoyed his time in England, even going so far as to suggest yesterday that there would be a touch of regret if he did score tonight. "I am sorry I have to play against England," he said. "I am having a great season with Chelsea. I am enjoying myself so much in England that that's why I will feel a little sad. I am usually pleased to score many goals for Italy, but it will not please me to score tomorrow."

So how do you stop him? Glenn Hoddle, the England coach has said he will not man-mark the Italian fearing it will distort the team's shape, which could be a smokescreen as Newcastle's sabre-toothed tackler David Batty was forged for the job. Certainly the conventional wisdom in the Premiership is to stick close to the 32-year-old Sardinian and pray.

Leeds, Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest all assigned one man to nullify Zola last season and all were rewarded. "I was in two minds whether to man-mark him," Stuart Pearce, Forest's player-manager when they met Chelsea last January, said. "Then I spoke to Des Walker. He said Sheffield Wednesday had great success when they put Peter Atherton on him and that made my mind up. I did the same with Des Lyttle and it worked. He kept a great player out of the game."

How great, Pearce discovered first hand a month later at Wembley. The England defender rose but missed a header that allowed Zola an opportunity. Sol Campbell raced across the area to eradicate the danger but he arrived just in time to get a faint touch that turned the Italian's shot inside Ian Walker's near post. A half-chance to Zola, no chance for England.

"He can disappear and then pop up," England's Graeme Le Saux said of his Chelsea team-mate this week. "If you're not aware you'll get caught. His movement is his big asset as he proved with his goal at Wembley. We have to be aware of that and anticipate what he is going to do. At least we know more about him now."

Dennis Wise, another Chelsea team-mate would go for the former option. "Even then he can still hurt you because he's class," he said. "He's frightening sometimes. He's got it all: control, touch, use of both feet. Put him one-on-one and he'll say 'See you later' and go past you."

Hoddle tried to buy Zola when he was manager at Chelsea, deterred only by an pounds 8m asking price that was cut almost in half by the time Ruud Gullit did get him to Stamford Bridge. The England coach needs no persuading of his talent but believes familiarity will diminish its threat.

His defenders were facing a quantity that was relatively unknown in February, whereas now they have met him in the Premiership. "Sure, we've got to respect Zola," Hoddle said. "Having said that, a lot of our players have played against him now and they recognise some of his moves. Perhaps now we can deal with him."

Hoddle has reinforced the education process with videos this week, pinpointing his runs. "The thing is to know when to go with him and when to let someone else pick him up."

Gerry Taggart, the Bolton and Northern Ireland central defender, said. "You have to be careful not leave gaps for others to run into. You need to concentrate all the time and," he paused for effect, "get stuck in".

That, you can safely leave to Adams, if fit, but the concentration will have to spread beyond the England defender. Or else Zola will grow a little more.