Football: Zola shines through clash of ideologies

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The Independent Online
ALMOST HALF a century after the Football Association's chauvinism and myopia denied their predecessors the chance of representing England in the very first European Cup, Chelsea finally made their belated entry to the competition at Stamford Bridge last night. Whether or not they had history in mind, the current generation did their best to begin to correct the injustice suffered by the team of Roy Bentley, John Harris, Frank Blunstone and Ron Greenwood, the English champions of 1954-55. A wonderfully wholehearted and combative match with Milan, one of the Continent's great names, produced a result which, at this stage of the Group H campaign, will probably satisfy both sides.

It was interesting, after all the advance publicity about this being effectively a match between two teams defined by Italian football thinking, to see Chelsea come out and perform with exactly the strategy one would expect from a top Premiership side, in other words with a 100 per cent commitment to playing at a 100 miles an hour. The fact that they were able to mount their opening assault while retaining their coherence was largely thanks to two players with enormous experience in this competition, Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly, respectively boasting 42 and 28 European Cup appearances for their French and Italian clubs.

Italian viewers might have been surprised to see Deschamps starting in a slightly more advanced position than was his habit at Juventus, and he was soon forming productive links with Celestine Babayaro and Gustavo Poyet down the left. Before long Demetrio Albertini switched his attention away from Dennis Wise to try to halt the flow of passes, but Deschamps's constant movement made him hard to stifle.

It was Desailly, however, who did more than anyone to establish Chelsea's right to compete with the five-time winners of the trophy. He, of course, was the star of the most recent of Milan's five victories, when he bestrode the Olympic Stadium in Athens on a warm May night in 1994 as the Italian club inflicted a traumatic 4-0 thrashing on Johan Cruyff's Barcelona. Last night he was similarly colossal, hurling himself to cut out passes to Milan's three forwards, tackling with implacable ferocity and even finding the opportunity to feed Babayaro on the left before haring into the area to meet a chipped return, only to find Dan Petrescu arriving first with a flick-header into vacant space. And after Oliver Bierhoff and Andriy Shevchenko had produced long-range shots on target to suggest a shift in the balance of the match half-way through the opening period, it was Desailly who used his strength to head off Shevchenko when the Ukrainian striker met Leonardo's pass and made for the byline on a threatening run.

Milan raised the tempo and push Chelsea back after the interval, but they were countered by Gianfranco Zola, who twinkled so brightly throughout the match that the flashbulbs popping in the stands seemed to be reflections of his brilliance. Clearly determined to show Italy that his time in England had not dulled his talent, he turned and darted between the defenders, demanding every ounce of concentration and technique that Paolo Maldini and Roberto Ayala could muster. But he will know that he really should have scored with the 66th-minute shot which came back off the post into Christian Abbiati's arms.

While Milan were clearly happy with a blank scoreline, their coach's brave commitment to a three-pronged attack meant that Chelsea could never relax. Bierhoff's rumbling presence, the occasional silky run from Shevchenko and Leonardo's dipping 35-yard shot against the bar late in the second half provided warnings of what Chelsea can expect when they visit San Siro next month.