Football: Hughes' spark ignites blue flame

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The Independent Online
Chelsea 3

Hughes 6, 35, Zola 10

West Ham United 1

Porfirio 11

Attendance: 28,315

Fainter hearts than those beating in the West Ham colours could have been forgiven for thinking it was all over after the first 10 minutes as Chelsea swaggered to a two-goal lead - one of which will take a lot of beating for goal of the season.

To their credit, the Hammers picked themselves up and made a game of it, but Chelsea were not to be denied their day. Their first victory in six outings was illuminated by the sparkle and skill of Gianfranco Zola and an aura of purposeful intelligence that marked the team's performance.

The West Ham manager, Harry Redknapp, ruefully admitted that playing three centre-backs had not worked. His refusal to alter the shape of his side meant that when Ian Bishop, Michael Hughes and John Moncur were outplayed in the centre of the field his defence was all the more cruelly exposed.

The signs were there in the first minute when Mark Hughes turned on to Craig Burley's cross and was denied only by some desperate tackling. Four minutes later, it was Dan Petrescu who provided the cross, Zola turned it sweetly into Hughes's path, and he made no mistake with a simple tap-in for the opener.

The 10th minute brought the game's most exquisite moment when Zola was sent free down Chelsea's right by Hughes's judicious pass. The little Italian turned Julian Dicks inside out before striking the sweetest of shots beyond Ludek Miklosko's dive.

That could have been it but West Ham's response was immediate - Hugo Porfirio hammering a left-foot shot into the net through a crowded goalmouth. All it meant was that Chelsea had to keep their foot on the accelerator to ensure the victory.

The decisive blow came in the 35th minute when Hughes rose above the struggling defenders to nod accurately beyond the goalkeeper for his second. The Welshman's performance deserved a hat-trick, but it was not to be - twice Dicks scrambled his shots off the line, Miklosko got in the way of a header, and an audacious 30-yard chip which had the beating of the goalkeeper was just inches too high.

The Hammers were hanging on by their fingernails but nothing resembling a white flag ever fluttered, despite the confusion and bewilderment that Zola and Hughes caused every time they touched the ball. Roberto Di Matteo gave Zola excellent support down the left flank in the second half and almost capped his first-class performance with a goal, but his shot from 20 yards rattled back into play off Miklosko's left-hand post.

The only disappointment for Chelsea must have been the Premiership debut of young Neil Clement. Despite Chelsea's superiority, he was never able to get in to the game and only really stood out when he was booked in the 18th minute for a nasty foul on Mark Bowen.