Football: Stylish tribute led by Zola

Chelsea 3 Wimbledon 0
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The Independent Online
AS "get well soon" presents go one could think of something more uplifting than this awesome attacking one from Chelsea for the unfortunate Pierluigi Casiraghi. While their Italian colleague was clearly very much in their thoughts, their football in no way suffered from his absence and, in fact, without wishing to sound unsympathetic, it looked a lot more lethal.

So impressive were Chelsea that one is tempted to say that they did not even miss the excellent Brian Laudrup or, come to that, their player-manager. This was as close to a perfect performance as they have produced under Gianluca Vialli, and their doleful-looking manager virtually admitted as much. The more realistic Chelsea fans may be reluctant to concede it just yet, having watched their teams flatter to deceive more often than they care to remember, but - whisper it - this is a side who could win the championship this season.

Wimbledon are rarely beaten this easily by anyone, not that the scoreline suitably reflected it, and by the 66th minute their fans were screaming at Joe Kinnear to do something to stop the slaughter. But just as he was poised to make a three-fold substitution the third goal went in from Dan Petrescu. The thought occurred that he could have replaced his entire team for all the good it would have done.

It may have been no coincidence that Chelsea's dramatic improvement at West Ham last week began the moment Tore Andre Flo came on for the stricken Casiraghi. The Italian, not one of your typical foreign mercenaries, is a fully committed sort and good technically, but he is not prolific. His strike ratio in Italy of a goal nearly every four games was not a particularly good one, even by Serie A standards.

Flo's all-round contribution is greater partly because of the extra options his height offers but chiefly because he is a natural goalscorer. In the few games he started last season he proved that he was not unduly flattered by his strike ratio of a goal every two games in Norway. Awarded his first Premiership start of the season he did just about everything but score on Saturday, giving rise to the thought that only now was he properly launching his Chelsea career.

Vialli hinted that with a partnership like that of Flo and Gianfranco Zola at his disposal he might soon be able to dispense with the "player" bit in his player-manager title. The indication that he would not be returning to the transfer market for a replacement for either Casiraghi or Laudrup seemed to spell the end of his controversial squad rotation system, too. "The spirit of the team at the moment is great and I'm always concerned about that, so before we do something in the market we have to be really careful," he said.

His suggestion that Chelsea were "almost a team" looked something of an understatement on Saturday. Once Wimbledon's defence was breached, Chelsea established a rhythm which the Dons could not possibly match. But before they indulged themselves in some exhibition stuff they first remembered Casiraghi. Flo's powerful right-wing run and Zola's conclusive finish in the 32nd minute saw the little Italian sprinting towards the Chelsea bench to hold aloft the No 10 shirt of their absent friend. His joy was unconfined but not just because it was his first goal in seven weeks.

"Before the game I asked my team-mates whoever scores the first goal to run to the bench and lift Casiraghi's shirt" Zola said. "We know he's very down and we wanted him to know we are close to him all the time he is suffering. I'm really proud to be the one who scored. It was one of the most emotional moments of my career."

Goals: Zola (32) 1-0; Poyet (55) 2-0; Petrescu (66) 3-0.

Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Lambourde, Desailly, Leboeuf, Le Saux; Petrescu, Poyet (Duberry, 81), Di Matteo (Morris, 86), Babayaro; Flo, Zola (Nicholls, 81). Substitutes not used: Goldbaek, Hitchcock (gk).

Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Perry, Thatcher, Kimble (Blackwell, 66); Ainsworth, Earle, Roberts, Kennedy; Gayle (Ekoku, 66), Hughes (Leaburn, 66). Substitutes not used: Ardley, Heald (gk).

Referee: J Winter (Stockton-on-Tees).

Bookings: Wimbledon: Hughes, Roberts, Earle.

Man of the match: Flo.

Attendance: 34,751.