A chemistry set made in Italy

Zola and Di Matteo are balanced players who have been well trained to serve their nation. Louis Jebb reports
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Chelsea like to present the relationship between their player- coach Ruud Gullit and the two younger Italians he has bought this season - Gianfranco Zola and Roberto Di Matteo - as one of father to precious sons. The reality is more that of a successful, experienced elder brother to admiring siblings half a generation younger. In either case the image of the family is an apt one. Di Matteo and Zola have thrived under Gullit's concerned tutelage, making themselves near-certain starters for Italy against England at Wembley.

With the World Cup qualifier in the offing and the Chelsea team's recent run of form - taking them within range of the Premiership leaders and to the fifth round of the FA Cup - all eyes have turned to Stamford Bridge in a way that has not been seen since the heady days of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Chelsea's renewed acquaintance with consistent form has followed Zola's arrival from Parma in December. Zola has acted on the Chelsea circle like some charismatic, half-forgotten relation who joins a family holiday and by his presence makes his contemporary cousins pull together and play together more nicely - and therefore more effectively.

After half a season in charge at Stamford Bridge, Gullit now finds he has the right team chemistry, the blend of players willing to think and re-think their football with each game. Zola, Di Matteo and their Italian club-mate Gianluca Vialli all featured in the four-goal second-half comeback against Liverpool last Sunday - 45 minutes of glancing touch play that have gone straight into club folklore. The players could hardly believe what they had achieved on Sunday, Gullit said at the Chelsea training ground last week.

The methods Gullit used to bring his squad down from the clouds last week provide a clue to why the three Italians chose to come to Chelsea, and why Gullit feels he will hand the Italian manager Cesare Maldini at the end of this week two fresh, balanced, relaxed squad players at the top of their form, whose club understanding Maldini can build on.

The best way to run any team, Gullit said, is the one that makes the players themselves comfortable and gives them responsibility. On the training field the Chelsea squad play in sequences of 15 minutes. After the first they go into a huddle, the players "say what is wrong. Then you play the second 15 minutes. Then you see again. If still they are not happy, you try again. And they say, 'This is how we have to play'.

"I like to give them responsibility. If you have responsibilities you are aware more of what you can do. Like in a factory. If you give [people] no responsibilities they may steal from you in the end. You say 'OK you can have responsibility' and they are more aware of what is happening." This is not, Gullit insisted, the way of Rinus Michels or of Arrigo Sacchi, his mentors for Holland and at Milan, nor is it Gullit's way. "It is logic", taken from life. But it tells something of the Italian way. Gullit was listened to, he said, not just in the Holland squad but also at Milan.

Just as every Italian fan in the street is "another coach", ready to give Maldini the most detailed orders on how the team should play, so the Italian squad take their training camp very seriously, very strictly. Gullit's emphasis at Chelsea on players' realising their gifts while never giving less than 100 per cent is right in tune with what Di Matteo and Zola had become used to in Italy, at club and international level.

Gullit favours players who think about the game. "I don't like players who come here for training, take a shower and go home. I like players who discuss what has happened. It's your job."

In the build-up to the England-Italy game, "stopping Zola" will be the hot topic for the amateur tactician. The reputation Zola made for himself with Napoli , Parma and Italy - a player strong in both feet, small but powerful in the air, and with an exceptional awareness of what is happening and where on the pitch - preceded him without quite preparing the public for the impact he has made both as playmaker and goalscorer , who collected the Carling Player of the Month award seven weeks after stepping off the plane. Some observers say that teams who have man-marked Zola well in the past month have put Chelsea out of their stride. Gullit will have none of this. On those occasions, he said, the whole team had not played so well.

Zola says the man-marking in the Premiership has given him problems, but he will not mind if England put a man on him at Wembley - Gareth Southgate is the short-odds favourite. It is something he is used to, he said on Friday. "I expect man-marking every game. This is no hard news. It's my job I have to sort it out. "

The emphasis on "job" picked up on the theme of professionalism which Gullit had played on so fluently before being joined in the training-ground bar by Di Matteo and Zola - a time when Gullit, interestingly, said that Zola had told him that he actually hoped they would man-mark him. "They can mark me," Zola said later, "but there are other players on the pitch."

They formed an unlikely triptych. On one side the diminutive Zola with his old-fashioned pre-Renaissance face dominated by an imposingly sculpted nose and mobile mouth; in the centre the statuesque, unflustered, philosopher king Gullit; on the left Di Matteo, a slight, elegant figure, laid back to the point of being inscrutable. They were introduced as "the boss and his sons". "He is my grandfather," Zola quipped. But there was nothing patronising or filial in the way they related to each other - it was adult to adult. Gullit remained impassive at the centre except when called on to help with translation or fine emphasis in an answer. Or to encourage Zola not to commit himself when asked whether Maldini was returning the Italian side to its real style of playing.

When asked who had marked him best in the Premiership, Zola grinned and would not be drawn. "I don't remember the team," he said, prompted by Di Matteo and Gullit. His team-mate Dennis Wise said that he found man- marking Zola in training a tough task. He has "happy feet", Wise said. "He jinks one way and then the other and then it's 'see you' isn't it?"

"See you, bye bye." It is the unspoken fear of every England player and fan on Wednesday week.