Football: Chelsea finally display their credentials as championship contenders

Chelsea 4 Derby County 0
There cannot have been many more one-sided contests in the Premiership this season. Chelsea dominated their opponents to such an extent that Derby failed to muster a single goal attempt all afternoon, and in so doing Chelsea at last displayed the credentials of serious championship challengers.

Their discipline was impressive, the skill factor high and just about the only thing missing was a touch of passion, although with Dennis Wise and Mark Hughes around, Chelsea should not want for that whenever they need it.

Jim Smith, the Derby manager, preferred to praise Chelsea rather than condemn his own team's performance, the third consecutive away game in which they have conceded four goals. The general consensus was that, with so little possession, what could Derby do? Wise and Roberto Di Matteo were at the heart of everything, and Chelsea's passing and work-rate were indeed exemplary.

Ruud Gullit seems to have his men exactly where he wants them now. England's Graham Le Saux, back after after a six-week lay-off, struggled a little in the first half but came on strong after that; Hughes and Gianfranco Zola, as Smith rightly pointed out, were magnificent throughout; Michael Duberry's return lent the defence an air of solidity; and Frank Sinclair, as a marauding full-back, is fast becoming the revelation of the season.

"The attitude of the team was excellent," Gullit said. "They kept it tight, they put them under pressure, they had no time. That was the best thing about Chelsea today, because if you give space and time to the opposition you're going to get difficulties. They had to adapt themselves to our pace."

Zola was back to his best and scored his first hat-trick at senior level to confirm the fact. The first was a pinpoint shot from the edge of the penalty area, the second the result of dogged determination, bundling in a rebound, and the third was as delightful a goal as you will see all season: a back-heeled flick to Di Matteo, an instant return pass into Zola's path and a cool finish past the helpless Mark Poom.

The blond Estonian goalkeeper did not have one of his best games. He might have done better with the Hughes shot which led to Zola's second, and he certainly ought to have saved Hughes' bicycle kick in the first half which, although spectacular, was not sweetly struck. That rather knocked the stuffing out of Derby.

Derby's own Italians, Stefano Eranio and Francesco Baiano, were totally outclassed by Zola and Di Matteo, while Paulo Wanchope looked out of his depth and was substituted early in the second half.

"I don't want to take anything away from Chelsea," Smith said. "I thought they were outstanding. It was an excellent team performance. It could have been eight today. We did quite well."

The only black mark on the afternoon for Gullit was three more bookings, but he has now built a big enough squad to cope with suspensions and injuries.

Goals: Zola (12) 1-0; Hughes (35) 2-0; Zola (66) 3-0; Zola (77) 4-0.

Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Sinclair, Leboeuf, Duberry, Babayaro; Petrescu, Di Matteo, Wise, Le Saux; M Hughes (Flo, 79), Zola (Crittenden, 86). Substitutes not used: Lambourde, Vialli, Hitchcock (gk).

Derby County (5-2-3): Poom; Kozluk, Rowett, Yates (D Powell, 77), Dailly, C Powell; Eranio, Carsley; Wanchope (Burton, 62), Baiano (Hunt 77), Sturridge. Substitutes not used: Solis, Hoult (gk).

Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield).

Bookings: Chelsea: Sinclair, Hughes, Di Matteo. Derby: Sturridge, Carsley, D. Powell.

Man of the Match: Zola.

Attendance: 34,544.