Football: Zola comes up with remedy for Chelsea's European hangover

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The Independent Online
Chelsea 2

West Ham United 1

Ruud Gullit will be pleased that his Chelsea side can win matches with performances that are well below par, but there must be doubts over whether they are yet genuine title contenders on yesterday's evidence.

A trademark curling Gianfranco Zola free-kick eight minutes from time put Chelsea two goals ahead, but the eventual one-goal martin of victory was actually a better representation of a scrappy match.

The first half was a fully balanced contest. Balanced, that is, in the mediocrity of both sides. Chelsea had the better of the play, and the chances, but they showed none of the sparkle that saw them beat Tromso so comprehensively last week.

Roberto Di Matteo was the most creative and hard-working man in blue, but there was little to show for all his running. Several times he cut through the West Ham midfield and took the ball forward, but either he had no support or those around him appeared to have had communications breakdown.

Mark Hughes and Dennis Wise were particularly culpable. On other occasions Di Matteo ran until he could go no further, and seeing no one in space, unleashed speculative shots that inevitably went wide or over. Zola had a less than inspiring first 45 minutes. After half an hour, an opportunity made by Di Matteo fell to him, but he miskicked. He had a better opportunity with a free-kick from the edge of the box just before half-time that was kept out by Rio Ferdinand, who headed off the line.

West Ham had chances, too, the best of which should have seen Steve Lomas convert a simple cross from five yards' range. The efforts of Eyal Berkovitch, who was was involved in build-up to that move, were generally wasted.

It was not until the second half that Chelsea were able to assert their dominance, though. They came out looking much livelier, again with Di Matteo at the centre of things. Twelve minutes after the restart he sprung the offside trap to get to the byline and pull the ball back for Zola. The diminutive Italian unleashed a twisting shot from an improbable angle and it went into the net via a deflection off Ferdinand.

The goal gave Chelsea some added impetus, and for a while they started to look as though they may win with flair rather than more mundane graft. Di Matteo combined well with Zola and Dennis Wise on several occasions, but some wayward shooting kept the score down. Di Matteo came closest to scoring when he hit a post.

Undeterred, West Ham started to rally and the introduction of Ivory Coast striker Abou Sammassi with 20 minutes left, gave the Hammers' play more urgency at least until they conceded a free-kick on the edge of the area. A minute after Zola's conversion of that, it was an Andy Myers challenge on Sammassi that led to a West Ham penalty. John Hartson converted from the spot, but it was too late to make a difference despite a frenzied final five minutes.

Harry Redknapp was unhappy not to come away from the game with something, but conceded that Chelsea's Italians had made the difference. "Zola is a different class," he said. "That free-kick was magnificent."

Ruud Gullit, pleased with the three points, said: "The midfield in the first half was a mess and not organised. We had a talk at half-time and told them what to do."

If producing results continue to be as simple as that, Chelsea may yet go close in the championship.

Goals: Ferdinand og (57) 1-0; Zola (82) 2-0; Hartson pen (84) 2-1.

Chelsea: De Goey; Myers, Leboeuf (Gullit, 90), Sinclair, Newton, Babayaro, Wise, Petrescu (Nicholls, 36), Di Matteo, Hughes, Zola. Substitutes not used: Vialli, Flo, Hitchcock (gk).

West Ham United: Forrest; Unsworth (Potts, h-t), Ferdinand, Pearce, Impey, Rowland, Moncur (Sammassi, 67), Lomas, Berkovitch, Lampard, Hartson. Substitutes not used: Bishop, Dowie, Sealey (gk).

Referee: G Barber (Surrey).

Bookings: Chelsea: Hughes, Leboeuf. West Ham: Rowland, Pearce.

Man of the match: Di Matteo.

Attendance: 34,382.