GIANFRANCO ZOLA, the Azzurri's most precious gift to British football, sparked a rhapsody in blue in the Rasunda Stadium last night with a breathtaking goal which restored the Cup-Winners' Cup to Chelsea after a gap of 27 years.
With only 19 minutes remaining in a final long on endeavour but short on quality, Zola was summoned from the substitutes' bench. Ironically, his first touch gave the ball away, belying the reputation he has built since arriving at Stamford Bridge from Parma 18 months ago.
But the second, after an exquisite through ball by Dennis Wise had bisected the Stuttgart defence, saw him chest the ball down. In a blur of movement, his third touch buried the ball in the top left corner of Franz Wohlfahrt's net. Zola had been on the pitch barely 20 seconds, but it was long enough to add a European trophy to the Cola-Cola Cup which Chelsea won within a month of Gianluca Vialli replacing Ruud Gullit as their manager in February.
They deserved their triumph for the way they dominated the game after a nerve-racking period during the first half, even if it was tarnished slightly by the 84th minute dismissal of Dan Petruscu for a reckless challenge on Murat Yakin.
Yet, in the end, Stuttgart could not claim even a moral victory. In stoppage time, Gerhard Poschner followed Petrescu off after twice provoking yellow cards with outbreaks of dissent.
In truth, the celebrations which followed the final whistle were more entertaining than the match itself, hard though both defences had striven to encourage their opponents with slapdash marking and sloppy clearances.
No sooner had Wise reclaimed the trophy which Ron Harris lifted in Athens in 1971 than the entire Chelsea squad along with the club's coaching staff and sundry camp followers linked hands and sprinted to the four corners of the ground. On arriving, they threw themselves to the turf in the manner made famous by Jurgen Klinsmann.
Parts of the playing surface were so rutted and bereft of grass that formation diving was a calculated gamble. The pitch was certainly not suitable for such an auspicious occasion, despite an overnight trim which gave the incessant choruses of "10 men went to mow a meadow" an unusual relevance.
The setting could have provided a more vivid contrast with Chelsea's last visit to Scandinavia, at the blizzard-bound Norwegian outpost of Tromso in October. Instead of a snow-covered huddle, some 16,000 Chelsea fans kept up a barrage of noise on a balmy evening.
Zola, of course, has the kind of talent that would stand out in a snowdrift. Lately, however, the Italian has been struggling with a groin injury, which may have swayed Vialli to opt for the towering Tore Andre Flo as his attacking foil.
Flo worked selflessly, but in the absence of Chelsea's other recent casualty, Graeme Le Saux, there were seldom enough crosses which might have exploited his strength in the air. The Norwegian did send one header on to the roof of the net in the first half, though at that stage Chelsea were struggling against the mobility of Stuttgart's strikers and, in particular, the wiles of Krassimir Balakov.
With one pass, the Bulgarian playmaker released Fredi Bobic for an angled shot that was dragged wide. Balakov also forced a fine diving stop from Ed de Goey, but an even better save, where Wohlfahrt parried a thunderous volley by Gustavo Poyet just before half-time, signalled an upturn in Chelsea's fortunes.
Their centre-backs began to keep a tighter rein on Bobic and Jonathan Akpoborie, while Balakov faded into fitfulness. Danny Granville, the former Cambridge United full-back playing only his 17th game as understudy to Le Saux, exemplified Chelsea's growing conviction.
Even so, they struggled to turn territorial advantage into the breakthrough that they craved. It was a bolt from the blue, in more senses than one, when Zola announced his entrance with a touch of class that was as welcome as it was overdue.
A more mature player than Granville might have embellished the scoreline in the final seconds. With the Stuttgart keeper stranded in Chelsea's half, he appeared to lack the confidence to try a long-range shot into the unguarded goal.
Moments later, his abberation was forgotten as Chelsea's party began. Aston Villa will raise a glass, too, having squeezed into the Uefa Cup by virtue of Zola's coup de grace.
Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Clarke, Duberry, Leboeuf, Granville; Petrescu, Wise, Di Matteo, Poyet (Newton, 80); Flo (Zola, 71), Vialli. Substitutes not used: M Hughes, Myers, Charvet, Morris, Hitchcock (gk).
VfB Stuttgart (1-2-5-2): Wohlfahrt; Yakin; Schneider (Endress, 55), Berthold; Haber (Djordjevic, 78), Soldo, Balakov, Poschner, Hagner (Ristic, 75); Bobic, Akpoborie. Substitutes to used: Becker, Lisztes, Stojkovski, Ziegler (gk).
Referee: S Braschi (Italy).