Zola: I did not stab Luca in the back

Little Sardinian denies any role in controversial departure of Vialli and backs Ranieri to transform the club
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The Independent Online

First things first. Gianfranco Zolais a nice guy. He is also a polite guy, an engaging guy, and a guy most managers would do anything to have in their team. But, despite everything that has been said about him, the little Sardinian is not Chelsea's Mr Nice Guy.

First things first. Gianfranco Zolais a nice guy. He is also a polite guy, an engaging guy, and a guy most managers would do anything to have in their team. But, despite everything that has been said about him, the little Sardinian is not Chelsea's Mr Nice Guy.

Two months ago, Zola was alleged to have been one of the architects behind the dismissal of the former manager Gianluca Vialli. The two Italian internationals had been close friends but were said to have fallen out over Zola's occasional omissions from the team.

Emperor Vialli was pushed on to his sword, but this was not a case of Et tu, Gianfranco ?. Indeed, Zola insists he played no part in his friend's departure. "I was hurt by the insinuation at the time," he said ahead of today's Premiership match at home to Leeds United. "Part of me was completely OK, because I knew I hadn't been involved in any way. Another part was sad, though, because a lot of the things that were reported were totally wrong.

"When these events happen, there is always a lot of speculation and there is nothing you can do about it. But I won't change my position. Let's just say I wasn't agreeing with Vialli about certain things. Do you honestly think the club would get rid of him because I'm not happy? I don't think so."

A similar disagreement had soured relations between Vialli and his predecessor, Ruud Gullit. Due to the latter's rotational policy, Vialli was being left on the bench too often for his and, eventually, the board's, liking. As a result, Gullit went and was replaced by his discarded striker.

On this occasion, though, history did not repeat itself. "Personally, I think this idea that I could decide Luca's fate is totally foolish. Chelsea are not foolish; they know what they are doing and their priority is not to a single player."

Zola should be trusted. He is an open, honest and intelligent man; one who is clearly not the squealing type. "If I have a problem I talk to the manager, not the board. I wasn't always pleased with his [Vialli's] decisions, but I always accepted them. I always respected him as a manager.

"This [Mr Nice Guy] story was open to many interpretations. Probably he should have said, 'I've got this [problem] with someone' rather than tell everyone it might be this or it might be that and leave things vague. But whoever Luca is referring to, I know that my conscience is clear."

As with all dismissals, Vialli's was swiftly followed by an arrival. The speed of the new managerial appointment - less than a week after his departure - may have raised a few eyebrows, but it was the choice of successor which most caught the eye. Despite his reputation in Europe, Claudio Ranieri was little known in this country, and many Chelsea supporters felt uneasy about him.

The recurring question was whether he would turn out to be an Arsÿne Wenger or a Christian Gross. Only one person was sure that Ken Bates and Colin Hutchinson had made the right choice. Zola, who had previously played for Ranieri at Napoli, welcomed the new manager with open arms. "I knew he had the qualities to succeed," Zola explained. "He is a good manager and he is starting to have an effect on the team."

He added: "We've had ups and downs this season. We're very good at home, where we score lots of goals and dominate games, but we're struggling away from Stamford Bridge. We did well at United [in Ranieri's first match in charge] and played some good football in the second half against Southampton last week. But the fact is that we lost that game 3-2, and a club like Chelsea simply can't afford to do that."

Poor away form has long been the London club's Achilles heel. Last season, they lost seven and drew six of their 19 away matches, while Manchester United won all but six on their travels. This campaign has started just as poorly, with Chelsea picking up just three points from a possible 18 outside SW6.

"There was the same problem the first year I came to the club," Zola, who joined from Parma in the summer of 1996, said. "Gullit's team were very impressive at home but could not perform with the same consistency away. We had the same trouble the following year, too, and with Luca. It's definitely what has been missing. If you can get points on the road, it gives you a lot of confidence. We're progressing at the moment, but we won't be complete until we get tougher away."

Zola added: "I think it's a psychological problem. The issue is not about tactics. It happens to clubs all over the world but it is very difficult to explain why. The key is trying to persuade the players that they are capable of reproducing their home form away. But that requires a lot of work and experience. It's the toughest thing to change, but it is do-able. When I was at Parma, we were fantastic at home but couldn't repeat our performances away. Then, one day, we decided to go for it and we imposed ourselves as a unit. We never looked back."

The hope must now be that Ranieri's change of tactics (Chelsea play with three strikers these days) as well as his know-how will help stabilise the club. Six managers in less than 10 years hardly suggests that Bates is a patient chairman, but Zola believes Ranieri could be the steady hand Chelsea have needed in recent times.

"He has a set way of playing and the message is getting across," Zola said. "I think it is working, but only time will tell. There is no point drawing conclusions at this early stage, but I know the players are following the manager and believe he knows how to get results."

Many will wonder whether Chelsea would not be in the same, if not better, League position had Vialli been allowed to stay. "Who knows?" Zola said. "The club took the decision, one which was not the easiest in the world, to appoint Claudio for a purpose. They must believe this is right for the future."

Perhaps this is part of Chelsea's drive for total Continentalisation? "An Italian club, for example, would never appoint a player as coach," Zola continued. "Their mentality is very different. They know that being a manager takes a lot out of you."

No wonder, then, that it is not a role which interests Zola at this stage. Contrary to certain reports, the 34-year-old is not performing any coaching duties alongside Ranieri. Rather, he is assisting with communication. "The manager already has plenty of help on the coaching side," Zola said. "And, on the whole, what he is asking us to do is not that complicated. I sometimes help a bit with the translation when he is explaining a particular thing. Most of the time, though, there is no need. Mr Ranieri is hardly coming from the moon.

"But I have no interest in doing his job. Already as a player you feel a lot of pressure, so I can only imagine what it would be like as a coach. It's not an easy position." Don't Chelsea managers know it.

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