Football: Zola has mark of distinction

WORLD CUP COUNTDOWN: Close attentions hold no fears for Chelsea's inspiration while Ferguson is poised to return to Brown's fold; Italy's pocket-sized playmaker is ready to walk tall at Wembley, he tells Clive White

Not since Ossie Ardiles brought his wiles to these shores has a foreigner made a bigger impact on the English game - nor been more adored - than Gianfranco Zola. And the latter seems to have managed it in half the time. Now, just as the Falklands War temporarily interrupted the love affair between England and its little Argentinian, so tomorrow's vital World Cup game at Wembley threatens to come between the nation and its diminutive Italian.

Chelsea's artful striker poses England the greatest single threat to their hopes of reaching the finals in France next year. Talk about biting the hand that feeds. Just how Glenn Hoddle, the England coach, chooses to deal with a player he tried to sign himself when manager at Stamford Bridge could well determine the outcome of the game, if not Group Two itself.

To mark or not to mark, that is the question. "It's not a problem for me," Zola claimed. "I handled it many times in Italy. I have played against Gentile, Costacurta, Vierchowod and Ferrara, so there is nothing defenders can do to me in England worse than I've already had. They can man-mark me but there are 10 other players on the pitch."

Yet three of English football's journeymen - Lucas Radebe (Leeds United), Peter Atherton (Sheffield Wednesday) and Des Lyttle (Nottingham Forest) - have each successfully drawn the little man's sting. Indeed Wednesday tried it both ways: for the first 20 minutes, they attempted to deny him space and found themselves two goals down, one of them by Zola. They then put Atherton on him and ended up drawing.

"He's a wonderfully instinctive, intuitive little man," David Pleat, the Wednesday manager, said, "but no player is happy when he's marked despite all this rubbish that [Chelsea manager Ruud] Gullit has come out with to the contrary."

Opinion is pretty much divided on how to deal with Zola and even the Forest coach, Liam O'Kane, thought England would be better off concentrating on their own game. Their man-marking job was hatched between the caretaker manager, Stuart Pearce, and his old Forest and England team-mate, Des Walker, who knew Zola from his Sampdoria days.

It has not had much effect in six-a-sides at Chelsea, though. Dennis Wise was given the task the other day. "He's got happy feet," Wise said. "He jinks one way and then the other and then it's see you, in'it?"

Whatever the tactic, Zola's toothy smile must be getting broader by the hour, thinking of Wembley's open spaces. For a player who regards English football as "a paradise for playmakers like myself", the national stadium should be like manna from heaven to him.

And to think at one time Zola feared that at 5ft 5in he might be too small for the English game. The seeds of self-doubt were sown in the Cup- Winners' Cup final in Copenhagen three years ago when, as a Parma player, he came not so much face-to-face with Tony Adams as face-to-belly button. "Adams didn't even have to jump to win the ball," Zola said. "It was a joke." One has a horrible feeling that it might be the Arsenal man who is belittled tomorrow.

The Sardinian has taken to the English game and the English way of life like a true cosmopolitan, his success following his pounds 4.5m move predicted by fellow countryman Gianluca Vialli with a remark he must have later regretted. "Zola is one of those players who bring strikers good fortune," he said. Certainly Mark Hughes, who looked to be on his way out of Chelsea, would second that. But then if you can hit it off with Faustino Asprilla, as Zola did in his first season at Parma, scoring 29 goals between them, you can play with anyone.

Zola professes to have fallen in love with the game again at Chelsea after falling out with Carlo Ancelotti. The Parma coach insisted on playing him in a wide midfield position, about as daft as Johan Cruyff playing Gary Lineker on the wing at Barcelona.

"It's the most relaxed I've been in my career, and that's important because my football is instinctive," Zola said. "Here I can get away from it and spend time with my family, so that when it comes to matches I'm much more interested in going out and playing."

A favourite of the former Italy coach, Arrigo Sacchi, who picked him ahead of Roberto Baggio for Euro 96, Zola is now keeping the richly talented Alessandro Del Piero waiting for a regular place in Cesare Maldini's team. As understudy at Napoli to Diego Maradona (from whom he learned his free- kick cunning) Zola knows what it is like to be kept waiting for that precious No l0 shirt. Now England need to get to grips with it.

Ardiles resolved his own conflicting loyalties to club and country by heading off, temporarily, to France. Let us hope Zola does not follow suit - leastways not without us.

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