Apart from their trouncing of Tromso in the Cup-Winners' Cup, Chelsea's problem of late had been losing the thread while trying to turn the screw, and they approached yesterday with their hopes of reinforcing a title challenge reduced by the knowledge that for every goal they had scored at home, United had put in two at Old Trafford. But they caught up at a sprint.
Derby had scored six goals in two games, and with the gangling Paulo Wanchope becoming one of the Premiership's most exciting strikers, Chelsea were grateful to have Franck Leboeuf and Graeme Le Saux returning to a defence of such assurance that Wanchope's control and Dean Sturridge's zeroing in from deep came to little. That allowed Chelsea to make an 11th- minute reply to their critics.
In keeping with their policy of having interchangeable strikers, Gianluca Vialli was on the bench and Mark Hughes soon in the area he loves, the tough end of the action. It was his touch on to Roberto Di Matteo that opened up Derby. Zola, dwarfed by Derby's defenders, had backed off into space and used it well, driving in a shot from 22 yards that scorched past Mart Poom. The question was whether Chelsea would build on that.
Zola and Dennis Wise, mites among the giants, teased and prodded. Hughes bumped and battled. Celestine Babayaro, no skyscraper himself, somehow crowded Wanchope, who tried to escape by moving into a more central attacking position that simply brought him hard up against bigger men.
Not a single shot from Derby reached Ed de Goey until almost half-time, by which point Chelsea had another goal thanks in part to lax goalkeeping by Poom, who allowed Hughes' accurate, spectacular but far from dynamic overhead kick to escape him.
Organised defending was certainly not Derby's most progressive point. They were consistently pulled and confused into leaving Zola, particularly, in threatening space. That could well have seen Chelsea several more goals to the good before half-time. In the event, a superb header from Dan Petrescu hit the post. Zola had created the opportunity, emphasising his delicate yet dramatic influence on a game that sometimes dwelt on the verge of violence. Sadly, among those who allowed themselves to get too hotly involved in the tetchiness was Hughes who, having been cautioned, now misses three matches.
Increasingly Di Matteo infiltrated Derby's defence, linking almost telepathically with Zola, who deservedly claimed his second goal and Chelsea's third after Hughes. Zola swiftly moved in and took advantage, knocking in a goal that made the margin of Chelsea's advantage nothing less than they merited.
The often uncanny link between Di Matteo and Zola totally bemused Derby, who spent almost the whole of the second 45 minutes jailed in their own half. The culmination of that understanding came after 77 minutes when they exchanged passes going into the penalty area. Either could have scored but when Di Matteo ran out of room he passed the ball for Zola to complete his hat-trick comfortably.Reuse content