Football: Zola flourishes in tense finale

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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

IT MAY be a cliche but if ever there was a perfect advertisement for English football, Filbert Street provided it yesterday - even though one of the teams involved had only one English national on the field. In the end, after a pulsating 90 minutes, it was a shame that one of them had to lose as Chelsea stretched their unbeaten run to 18 games by inflicting only the second home defeat of the season on Martin O'Neill's tigerish team.

On a bitterly cold afternoon Leicester suffered a double blow even before a ball was kicked. Both regular strikers, Emile Heskey and Tony Cottee, with 10 goals between them this season, were ruled out by injury. O'Neill responded by playing Matt Elliott up front alongside Graham Fenton.

For their part, Chelsea were without long-term injury victim Pierluigi Casiraghi and the suspended Dennis Wise at a ground where they had won only once in 10 previous visits.

Just before the kick-off, O'Neill received the Premiership's Manager of the Month award for October, a rich reward for pledging his immediate future to the club, and his side almost gave him something else to smile about just two minutes into the game. Steve Guppy was sent away down the left wing and only a reflex save by Ed de Goey prevented Fenton from converting the cross.

De Goey saved Chelsea again five minutes later, this time pushing a 35- yard free-kick by Elliott round the post as the home team began at a ferocious pace. But as Leicester failed to turn their early flourish into a goal, so Chelsea gradually began to assert themselves. After 15 minutes Kasey Keller just managed to scramble away a shot from Tore Andre Flo, with no little help from his defence in which Frank Sinclair was particularly keen to impress against his old team.

Goals looked certain to come although no one expected three in 13 minutes, the first two from the visitors. For the opener on 28 minutes, Bjarne Goldbaek, starting for the first time in the Premiership, crossed from the right and the ball deflected off Gianfranco Zola and trickled into the net.

Eleven minutes later Chelsea doubled their lead. Roberto Di Matteo's cross was headed against the bar by Gustavo Poyet and the Uruguayan reacted first to plant his second header firmly into the net.

Leicester defiantly went straight up the other end to pull a goal back. The dangerous Steve Guppy's cross was knocked down by Elliott and Muzzy Izzet was on hand to fire home the loose ball five minutes before the end of a superb, end-to-end opening half, marred only by some ugly scuffles between rival fans down in the corner of the Shanks and McEwan stand.

Chelsea restored their two-goal lead within 11 minutes of the restart. Zola curled a 25-yard free-kick against the post and when Celestine Babayaro failed to convert the rebound, the ball ran kindly to Flo.

Nothing seemed to be going right for Leicester. Robbie Savage came off second best after a challenge with Graeme le Saux and was carried off, to be replaced by Stuart Campbell. 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 the almost manic excitement, the Leicester manager was told to quieten down by the referee Paul Durkin after screaming in protest at Sinclair being booked for a foul on Zola.

Moments later, only De Goey's outstretched leg prevented Sinclair from snatching a dramatic equaliser against his former team-mates. Then Franck Leboeuf appeared from nowhere to clear Elliott's goal-bound header off the line and preserve Chelsea's lead. Even the first-half hooligans were kept on the edge of their seats as the pace showed no sign of slacking in the final phase of a pulsating game.

Zola put the game beyond doubt in the last minute with Chelsea's fourth. Di Matteo's superb through-ball split the Leicester defence and Zola's shot beat Keller, hit the post and ran across the face of the goal and into the net.

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