Football: Zola unites culture clash

COMMENTARY
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The Independent Online
No less an authority than Ruud Gullit hailed the spectacle at Stamford Bridge as "a good promotion for English football". Perhaps the Advertising Standards Authority should be alerted. Compelling as it was, the fare served up by Chelsea and Newcastle was actually an advert for something quite different.

For there were few enough players from the host country on the pitch even before David Batty decided to live up to his surname, obliging an excellent referee to reduce their number to eight. No, if Saturday's 1- 1 draw proved anything beyond the attacking ideals of the clubs involved, it was that the Premiership is probably the most exciting league in the world.

Not the best, of course. The technical superiority on display from the Bundesliga to Bulgaria meant that claim was discredited long before Juventus further exposed Manchester United's inadequacies last week. But in terms of relentless incident the English game is in a league of its own, as Gianfranco Zola can doubtless testify.

Less than 24 hours after the new Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, foresaw a time when Premiership sides would contain seven or eight foreigners, Zola raised Chelsea's Continental complement to six. His was a hugely promising home debut, although the physical nature of the match may have made him wonder whether he had strayed into the nearby contest featuring the oval-ball Azzurri.

Gullit, anticipating that a third Italian would attract sceptical comment, drew the parallel in his programme notes with the arrival of himself and two fellow Dutchmen at Milan. While Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten lent moral support from the stand here, it may be stretching the symbolic point to expect Chelsea's Stranieri to make a comparable impact.

When Gullit and his compatriots exploded on Serie A, they were still approaching the peak of their powers. They were to be the catalysts for a team already brimming with world-class talent. With respect to Zola, Gianluca Vialli and the disappointing Roberto Di Matteo, they were becoming yesterday's men at home. Moreover, the transition from the Netherlands to Italy is not as great as the chasm between Italian and English football cultures.

That said, Zola showed that he is likely to rival Fabrizio Ravanelli as the most effective of the "Calcio Three". Size-wise, he could have been playing scrum-half at Twickenham. He has a buzzy, darting style somewhere between Ossie Ardiles and Peter Beardsley, and his ability to thread passes through to "Lucre" Vialli and Mark Hughes may yet make that partnership work.

Like Middlesbrough's "White Feather", the pounds 4.5m recruit from Parma is lethal from free-kicks anywhere within 35 yard's range. Vialli claimed the goal which put Chelsea ahead - "Maybe it touched his hair," Gullit quipped - but it was the pace and trajectory of Zola's delivery from the left which beat Pavel Srnicek.

Zola, however, found the tempo too frantic until he discovered a second wind late on, by which time Newcastle's 10 men were hanging on grimly. Contradicting the stereotype of the foreign "diver", he honourably stayed on his feet during a stoppage-time slalom through a packed penalty area. He has a lot to learn.

There is no shortage of role models for those to whom the cynical does not come naturally. When the two most obvious candidates, old Roses rivals, came into each other's orbit in the 53rd minute, their brush ended with Batty's dismissal for elbowing Hughes in the face. Kevin Keegan, angry if unspecific about the alleged provocation of Batty, referred to the fact that it was the first red card of his career as if that made him a model of propriety.

In truth, Batty has ridden his luck for a long time. One recalls his attempts to intimidate Juninho for England against Brazil, not to mention the fisticuffs with a Blackburn colleague in Moscow a year ago. This time, after lashing out in response to the Welshman's characteristically niggling challenge from behind, no amount of selective indignation from his manager could excuse or explain his action.

With a Zola in attendance, those of literary bent should not have been surprised that J'Accuse was the main thrust of Keegan's comments. Still less that his chosen text was that battered old volume, J'Accuse Mark Hughes.

The curious aspect was that four days earlier, Batty had remained calm despite having his face split open by a vicious assault by a Metz player (a Brazilian, ironically). On this occasion the rush of blood was merely metaphorical, though potentially costly for Newcastle's chances of retaining the leadership.

They had just pulled level with an extraordinary strike by Alan Shearer. The England captain, initially thwarted by Frode Grodas, showed tenacity and persistence that were somehow typically British yet uniquely Shearer by turning back towards his own goal before spinning to score with an unstoppable shot.

Batty's belligerence threatened to squander such brilliance, inviting Chelsea to lay siege to Srnicek's goal. Last season, Newcastle might well have buckled in such a situation. Now they hauled off what Keegan called their "flair players", threw on two grafters and deputed Shearer to double his efforts as a lone forward.

In a manner that augurs well for the months ahead, Newcastle's cavaliers metamorphosed into roundheads so effectively that Chelsea's best chance came from a 30-yard shot by Dennis Wise which shook the bar. Wise's non- stop involvement suggested that the growing overseas presence will, if nothing else, encourage indigenous players to excel for fear of losing their places.

Keegan, showing solidarity with Gullit over his latest transfer coup, believes the foreign influence will be more constructive than that. Far from having a damaging effect, as Wenger predicted, the sheer virtuosity of players like Zola offered an example from which the British could learn.

Batty and Hughes, alas, may be too set in their ways for that. The former may even be tempted to feel that with Newcastle coming from behind and staying top while their closest challengers faltered, it was not such a bad day after all. If that is the case, he should consider the possibility that they might well have gone on to win had he stayed on.

Goals: Vialli (23) 1-0; Shearer (42) 1-1.

Chelsea (3-5-2): Grodas; Duberry, Leboeuf, Clarke; Petrescu, Di Matteo (Gullit, 62), Wise, Zola, Minto; Vialli, Hughes. Substitutes not used: Phelan, Sinclair, Newton, Colgan (gk).

Newcastle United (3-5-2): Srnicek; Peacock, Albert, Elliott; Gillespie, Lee, Batty, Beardsley, Ginola (Watson, 55); Asprilla (Clark, 70), Shearer. Substitutes not used: Barton, Kitson, Hislop (gk).

Refereee: M Reed (Birmingham).

Bookings: Chelsea Vialli; Newcastle Shearer, Ginola, Albert.

Man of the match: Wise. Attendance: 28,401.

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