Coventry City 1
By the interval on Saturday at least one wheel was in danger of falling off the Chelsea bandwagon, slowed by defeat at Southampton and stopped abruptly in the FA Cup last Sunday by Manchester United.
Mark Nicholls, the young Chelsea forward, was out of his depth in that sea of red and he was hauled ashore at half-time; against Coventry he reappeared at the same juncture, and with the help of Graeme Le Saux he turned the match.
The visitors led at the break through Paul Telfer, who shot past Ed De Goey from 12 yards after Danny Granville had failed to deal with John Salako's cross. Prior to that Chelsea had squandered three reasonable chances, but with Dennis Wise in exile on the right wing and Zola looking too embarrassed by his new haircut to be a regular threat Chelsea were strangely uncoordinated, perhaps not yet recovered from their recent cup antics which had also seen them scrape through to the Coca-Cola semi-finals on penalties at Portman Road.
Coventry, by contrast, were hardly lacking in conviction following famous victories over Manchester United and Liverpool, and it was no great surprise when they took the lead. Darren Huckerby might have provided it moments earlier after a mistake by Frank Leboeuf, but the hitherto in-form striker dragged his shot badly wide.
Despite the absence of Dan Petrescu and Gianluca Vialli, Ruud Gullit had options on the Chelsea bench including himself and Tore Andre Flo; he chose to give Nicholls a run in midfield and reverted to a three-five defence. That galvanised Chelsea and they started the second half with much more purpose, providing a suitable environment for the artistry of Roberto Di Matteo and the industry of his new midfield partner, Bernard Lambourde.
The coup de grace in the psychological warfare was the appearance of a half-fit Gullit after an hour, replacing Zola in attack. Six minutes later Chelsea were level. Mark Hughes took advantage of a kind run of the ball to find Le Saux on the left, and the England man's measured cross was nodded in confidently by the unmarked Nicholls. Then an eye-catching pass from Lambourde found Le Saux who crossed a fraction lower, and for the second time in four minutes Nicholls arrived with impeccable timing to glide the ball past Magnus Hedman.
Not long afterwards it was all over and Nicholls was instrumental to the best goal of the game. Racing into the penalty area, perhaps with thoughts of a hat-trick, he had the presence of mind to pass to Hughes when he could have hit and hoped. The senior striker responded with a sublime dummy and Di Matteo struck a precise right-footed shot high and hard into the far corner of the net.
After explaining that Zola had seemed tired, Gullit sang the praises of his latest match-winner: "The strength of Mark Nicholls is that he thinks he's the best player in the world. When he comes on the pitch he thinks he can cope with it. I like players who show that confidence. You could play him tomorrow in the San Siro and he'd do the same things, it doesn't matter to him."
Gordon Strachan blamed himself for risking adventure by bringing on the Romanian striker Viorel Moldovan when his side were a goal up, but it did not prevent the Coventry manager from having an oblique pop at the beleaguered referee Mike Reed who in fairness, once his craving for yellow cards had been sated by half-time, did not have a bad game.
Goals: Telfer (32) 0-1; Nicholls (66) 1-1; Nicholls (70) 2-1; Di Matteo (78) 3-1.
Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Clarke, Duberry, Leboeuf, Granville (Nicholls, h/t); Wise, Lambourde, Di Matteo, Le Saux; Zola (Gullit, 59), M Hughes. Substitutes not used: Flo, P Hughes, Hitchcock (gk).
Coventry City (4-4-2): Hedman; Shaw, Breen, Williams, Burrows; Telfer, Boland, Whelan, Salako (Moldovan, 58); Dublin, Huckerby. Substitutes not used: Soltvedt, Haworth, Gavin Strachan, Ogrizovic (gk).
Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).
Bookings: Chelsea: Duberry, Clarke. Coventry: Salako, Huckerby, Dublin.
Man of the match: Nicholls.