Football: Zola helps to lift Chelsea's blues

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The Independent Online
Chelsea 1

Zola 11

Southampton 0

Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 34,920

ANOTHER three points keep Chelsea in pursuit of Manchester United but the manner of this victory over a spirited and unlucky Southampton was a disappointment to another expectant, sell-out Stamford Bridge crowd. In the final minute, amid the silence that followed the foul by Marcel Desailly that left Mark Hughes, an old Chelsea favourite, lying still on the turf, a Saints supporter yelled at the home fans: "They've got no heart, your team. We're all over you."

The truth of that comment was unarguable. After their sequence of Premiership wins had been broken at Highbury last week, Chelsea opened brightly, went a goal up and then lost the script. Heart and, just as importantly, purpose were lacking, leaving the non-stop Gianfranco Zola to plough on alone as a threat to the visitors.

Defeat was something Southampton did not deserve and the exit on a stretcher in the final minute was wretched for Hughes, who had been honoured before the start with the presentation of a cut-glass rose bowl as a memento of his time with Chelsea.

The Southampton manager, Dave Jones, complained afterwards that Hughes, who was taken away for an X-ray which revealed an ankle injury less serious than feared, had been "done" and added: "For me, it was a bad tackle.The referee and linesman were ball-watching."

This sour incident was the finale to a disappointing afternoon. Chelsea's assistant manager, Graham Rix, was sent out to talk to the media and complained with a smile: "I always get sent out to do the conference when it's a crap game. Michael Duberry said afterwards that if it had been in his back garden he would have drawn the curtains.

"But from a practical point of view we have got three points which keep us second in the league with a shout. It was a case of grinding out a result."

Because of the club's lengthy injury list, Rix added, Chelsea had "scraped through" in recent weeks. They were certainly scraping yesterday, bumping along on the keel of their reputation. Yet it had all looked so promising early on.

In the 11th minute Hassan Kachloul's foul on Jody Morris won Chelsea a free-kick which Zola drove into the wall, but before the danger had been cleared Morris was felled again, this time by Southampton's new signing Chris Marsden on the edge of the area. Offered a second chance, five or six yards closer, Zola bent his shot to the right of the stranded Paul Jones for a typically fine strike.

There was early indication of Chelsea embarrassments to come as Ed De Goey came flying out of the area to head away a high, bouncing ball which Egil Ostenstad was chasing.

With the 17-year-old Finn Mikael Forssell up against a better class of defender and unable to reproduce the form which had destroyed Oxford in the midweek FA Cup replay, Chelsea were increasingly reliant on the industry of Zola. But first Dan Petrescu and then, in the second half, Dennis Wise and Franck Leboeuf, spurned the chances the little Italian carved out for them.

Well prompted from midfield by Hughes and driven forward by the energy of Kachloul and Marsden, Southampton looked better the longer the game went, particularly with the introduction of Wayne Bridge after an hour to carry the ball down the left.

France's World Cup-winning pair of Desailly and Leboeuf were at full stretch to contain the aerial danger of James Beattie but both were left trailing when Ostenstad beat both of them all ends up before delivering a fierce shot which De Goey just managed to repel.

Then Marsden stepped over a low cross by Beattie, dummying the Chelsea defence but also confounding his team-mates, who were too slow to profit. So, in the end, Chelsea hung on for a deeply unimpressive win. On this form, their international galaxy of stars will need to perform much closer to the level of their ability to stay as serious contenders.