Football: Sublime Zola the master poacher

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The Independent Online
Leicester City 2 Chelsea 4

Izzet 40, Guppy 60 Zola 28, 90, Poyet 39, Flo 56

Half-time: 1-2 Attendance: 21,401

EVEN BY his own animated standards, Martin O'Neill had rarely ever looked as emotionally drained. Yet Leicester City's favourite Irishman should have known: winning the Manager of the Month award, as O'Neill did yesterday, inevitably has a habit of kicking you where it hurts most.

For 20 minutes, without their two main strikers, Emile Heskey and Tony Cottee, and with Matt Elliott playing as an emergency centre-forward (he was given the task barely an hour before the start) O'Neill's team had Chelsea's multi-national challengers for the League title chasing shadows. So superior was Leicester's depleted team that it seemed Chelsea's 17- match unbeaten run was sure to be stifled on a bitterly cold afternoon at Filbert Street.

That Gianluca Vialli's side managed instead to stretch that record to 18 games after a pulsating encounter was due to a number of factors: superior finishing by Chelsea, fantastic goalkeeping by Ed de Goey, sloppy defending by Leicester, a large slice of luck and one of the best goal-line clearances you are ever likely to see - Franck Leboeuf appearing from nowhere to wrap a leg around a goal-bound header from Frank Sinclair when Chelsea were hanging on at 3-2.

"We absolutely pulverised a championship-challenging side, we absolutely blitzed them," O'Neill said afterwards. "For the side we had out, we were fantastic. But when you are dominating a game like that, you have got to get a goal.

"Instead, we kept conceding daft ones. When we went 2-0 down in a game we were totally in charge of, you wouldn't have believed it if you had just come back from the toilet. The final scoreline was no reflection on the game at all . . . but that's football."

To be fair, Vialli admitted that Leicester deserved something from the game, but paid tribute to his international array of stars for their battling qualities on a day when they would surely have lost without plenty of guts and spirit to go with their immense skill and guile.

"This was one of our most difficult games but the players' commitment was fantastic," he said. "Maybe in the end we were more clinical than them when we had the opportunity to score. They made our lives really difficult for 95 minutes. We had to play out of our skins."

During their team's early dominance, Leicester fans saw De Goey make a fantastic reflex save from Graham Fenton, then tip a 35-yard free-kick by Elliott round the post. But give a side as talented as Chelsea a sniff of a goal and you are inevitably punished.

First, Gianfranco Zola, who seems to be playing better than ever these days, scored when the ball bounced somewhat fortuitously off his body and trickled over the line. Then Gustavo Poyet was first to react to Roberto Di Matteo's cross, initially with a header against the bar and then a follow-up nod into the net.

Leicester defiantly went straight up the other end and pulled a goal back through Muzzy Izzet but they were two behind again within 11 minutes of the restart, Tore Andre Flo finishing off a Zola free-kick that smacked against the post.

With their never-say-die attitude, however, the Foxes kept on prowling and Guppy set up a rip-roaring final 30 minutes with a magnificent goal on the hour, curling in a left-foot shot from the edge of the box that beat De Goey at the far post.

Amid all the excitement, O'Neill was told to quieten down by the referee, Paul Durkin, after screaming in protest at Sinclair being booked for a foul on Zola. Then De Goey's outstretched leg prevented Sinclair from snatching a dramatic equaliser against his former team-mates, followed by that Leboeuf piece of defensive wizardry.

On the whistle, Zola scored his second and Chelsea's fourth, running on to Di Matteo's defence-splitting pass to beat Kasey Keller. The Chelsea contingent, a section of whom had clashed with home fans towards the end of the first half, roared their approval. O'Neill threw his hands up in dismay. The man who had gone with his heart and stayed at Leicester did not deserve to have it broken.