If he could drizzle on Graham Taylor's homecoming parade during a 25-minute cameo, what might Gianfranco Zola contribute to Chelsea's push for a place in the Champions' League were he allowed the first hour or even a full 90 minutes?
That ought to be the question exercising Claudio Ranieri. Zola's third consecutive appearance as a second-half substitute seems, however, to confirm that Chelsea's manager believes his fellow Italian is best held back for when opponents are tiring and space is opening up.
Even on a pitch that looked as if it had been specially churned up to evoke the era in which Taylor first arrived at Aston Villa, Zola's vision and precision immediately helped Chelsea to draw level. Much as he did at West Ham and Leicester over the previous week, he all but inspired them to come from behind to win.
Paul Merson, the only Chelsea fan present who was not pleased by his impact, fuelled the continuing protests against the Villa chairman, Doug Ellis, by noting that Zola's emergence from the bench underlined a critical disparity between the clubs. The likes of Chelsea could not only summon fresh legs, he argued, but a player who could transform a game, just as Manchester United did by introducing Ruud van Nistelrooy to devastating effect on the same stage a month earlier.
That Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink created the goal which Frank Lampard converted to negate Merson's first-half effort was an irony not lost on the Villa captain, or on the anti-Ellis element in a crowd who gave Taylor an affectionate reception. Both players were once coveted by John Gregory, the previous manager, but their transfer fees and salary requirements were beyond Villa's budget.
Lampard, who revealed that Chelsea's players recently held a clear-the-air meeting where they agreed to show "more resolve", said Zola was "a joy to play with". In what was tantamount to a memo to Ranieri he added: "His fitness is as good as ever. You won't find another 35-year-old as dedicated as him. I hope he stays for another season because he's so influential."
Too influential by half for Taylor's liking. That said, the one-time "Turnip" surfaced afterwards looking and sounding more relaxed than the wider football world will remember him. His experience as the manager of England taught him how to live with public vilification and media mockery, but he claimed he could not have lived with himself had he spurned Villa.
Eight and a half years after his darkest hour and a half in Rotterdam, and on the eve of another English expedition to the Netherlands, he admitted his "inner voices" had persuaded him to return. "I'd never allow myself to let myself call myself a coward," he said in timeless Taylorese.
For him, as for Sir Alex Ferguson and Bobby Robson, the job was "a drug". Villa represented his last chance to work in the upper reaches of the Premiership, so it would have "eaten away" at him in years to come had he said no.
Taylor has set out some lofty ambitions for the next two and a half seasons, not least to challenge Manchester United's predominance. Chelsea, one of the clubs who have speculated on transfers in a manner largely alien to Villa, showed him and Ellis how difficult it will be to bridge even the seemingly small gap between the pretenders and contenders.
Villa played with greater urgency, like the new/old broom promised, but Chelsea, he observed with refreshing candour, had "shaded it". Indeed, a third last-gasp away success in a row was not so much beckoning as waving wildly when Hasselbaink broke through with two minutes left only to drag his shot wide as Taylor "expected the net to bulge".
Sven Goran Eriksson, for whom Taylor's fall from tabloid favour should serve as a warning, later included Darius Vassell in his squad for Amsterdam despite a below-par performance by the striker's own standards. Yet the Swede overlooked Graeme Le Saux at a time when England are crying out for left-sided players, and doubtless deemed the most impressive Englishman afield, the perpetual Merson, as belonging to the past.
An injury to Chelsea's John Terry spared Eriksson the dilemma of whether to pick a player with extra-curricular problems. Likewise the mediocre form of Lee Hendrie, whose international debut revealed him to be blessed with some of Zola's panache but who has since gone backwards. If Taylor is to revamp Villa, and really does feel he can do so with the personnel he has inherited, a mundane midfield is the place to start.
Goals: Merson (28) 1-0; Lampard (65) 1-1.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Enckelman 6; Delaney 7, Mellberg 6 (Barry 5, h-t), Staunton 7, Samuel 6; Hadji 5, Boateng 5, Hendrie 3 (Stone 5, 57), Merson 7; Angel 5, Vassell 5 (Dublin, 87). Substitutes not used: Balaban, Myhill (gk).
Chelsea (4-4-2): Cudicini 6; Ferrer 5 (Zola 7, 64), Terry 7 (Keenan, 77), Desailly 6, Le Saux 6; Stanic 4, Lampard 6, Petit 6, Dalla Bona 4; Hasselbaink 7, Gudjohnsen 6 (Forssell 5, 64). Substitutes not used: Jokanovic, De Goey (gk).
Referee: P Durkin (Dorset) 6.
Bookings: Villa: Samuel. Chelsea: Dalla Bona.
Man of the match: Merson.
Attendance: 41,137.Reuse content