Zenden wings in to claim the perfect ten

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The Independent Football

Not even the player himself was prepared for the change of role, though Boudewijn Zenden has built a prosperous career on his versatility. From his days as a schoolboy in Maastricht through the youth teams at PSV Eindhoven, his first professional club, and on to Barcelona, the Dutchman has patrolled the wings.

As he says himself: "At PSV, we played a lot of 4-4-2 and I used to play as a midfield winger, then at Barcelona we played 4-3-3 and I was right-winger, left-winger, right midfield, left midfield, left-back. I've played pretty well every-where, but always on the sides."

Only rarely – and not for as long as he can remember – has he been allowed to occupy the coveted position behind the two strikers which the Dutch call simply "the number 10". So Claudio Ranieri's tactical reshuffle midway through the first leg of Chelsea's Uefa Cup tie against Levski Sofia proved to be a masterstroke. If Eidur Gudjohnsen's two goals in a 3-0 victory over the Bulgarian champions justifiably took the headlines, Zenden's neat interplay in central midfield gave Chelsea a poise and invention largely absent from their overall play this season.

"I was quite surprised when the trainer came to me at half-time and said that's where he wanted me to play," said Zenden later. "I can't remember the last time I played in that position, maybe in the youth team or for Holland, I don't know, but I liked it because I could get space and turn, play some passes and go forward if there were some crosses.

"Their defenders had a lot of problems with it at the start of the second half, then they put a man on me instead of Jody [Morris] or Joka [Slavisa Jokanovic], so one of us was always free. In the end, I was also free, so I think it worked quite well. I don't know if he will want me to play there again. It's whatever the team need, but it opens up another option."

Middlesbrough provide the next challenge for Ranieri's remodelled Chelsea at Stamford Bridge today, and it would be a surprise if Steve McClaren, the Boro coach who was in the stands on Thursday night, had not devised his own tactical plan to counter Ranieri's experiment. For Zenden, who is already relishing the broad panorama of life in the Premiership, the different perspective is another welcome distraction from the crushing disappointment of Holland's failure to qualify for the 2002 World Cup.

Zenden admits he has not fully recovered from the effects of their defeat by the Republic of Ireland, which effectively consigned one of football's most creative nations to the international sidelines. Given their recent heritage, Holland's absence in Japan and Korea is almost unthinkable.

"I feel it, we feel it as a team," Zenden says. "We've got such great supporters, they dress up in orange and make a big party and they go everywhere to watch us. We don't deserve to go to the World Cup, but they do. That's what makes it such a disappointment. Everyone was looking forward to a great tournament and we were so confident that we could play a big role and make it beautiful. But if you don't qualify, you don't go. There are no wild cards to the World Cup."

In one sense, Zenden is fortunate. He has already sampled the atmosphere of a World Cup and a European Championship when, both times, Holland were beaten on penalties, and, at the age of 25, Germany in 2006 should well be within his range. "Maybe I can play in 20 more World Cups, I don't care," he says. "Imagine it, the first World Cup in Asia, the atmosphere, the stadiums, it will be special. For us as a generation of players, we should have been there."

Quite where a team boasting the talents of Kluivert, the De Boers, Van Nistelrooy, Hasselbaink, Davids, Cocu, Overmars, Stam and Zenden, a side which comprehensively outplayed England in a friendly last month, slipped up is still a matter of fierce debate inside Holland. Zenden believes that post-Euro 2000 blues lingered into the early stages of the campaign and combined with a series of key injuries to undermine Holland's confidence. "We were never able to play with the same group who had played in Euro 2000. In Ireland, it was a rugby pitch and it was dry as hell. We tried to play the passing game, which did not work, and ended up playing like the Irish.

"But we didn't lose it in that one game. We were 2-0 up against Portugal and finished at 2-2 when we could have gone top of the table. In the home game, someone whistled in the crowd and we stopped playing as they scored, then there was a stupid back-pass.

"We have to learn that the result is the most important thing. It's better to play ugly and win than to play well and lose, but we only start to believe that when we lose. The test of a good team is that they win when they are playing badly. It's something we're not very good at."

The move to Chelsea could not have come at a better time for the flying Dutchman, who brought with him an infectious athleticism and the searing, skittish, pace of an old-fashioned wizard of the wing. Watch Zenden – or Bolo, as he was so aptly nicknamed by Ronaldo at PSV – bounce and skip his way through a training session and you can sense the controlled muscularity of a gymnast. It is no surprise to learn that, through his father Pierre, a former national judo coach, Zenden became a black belt, first dan at the age of 14.

He exudes confidence in his movement. "Judo helped my football," he says. "It gave me strength and agility." As well as an ability to look after himself and an instinctive understanding of how to absorb tackles. Felled by a particularly crude challenge from Jamie Carragher in the recent friendly international, Zenden bounced straight back on to his feet and rewarded the Liverpool defender's audacity with a hearty shove in the chest. That night, Ashley Cole was the most conspicuous victim of Zenden's pace and durability.

At Chelsea, Zenden is still settling in, to the team and his new city. "I knew what to expect from playing against them for Barcelona and I know how ambitious they are to succeed. We have to win a trophy this season. But you have to remember we have pretty well a whole new midfield, so we still have a lot to learn about each other."

Ranieri will have noted how comfortably Zenden adapted to his new position in central midfield and how fluently Chelsea played around him. At Barcelona, Louis van Gaal, now the coach of Holland, was never convinced about Zenden's crossing ability. Ranieri might just have found the perfect solution, for the player, for Chelsea and for Holland.