Masters of style and guile

Italians stake all on mark of Zola; Ian Ridley sees the irony in a playmaker now cast as saviour
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The Independent Online
He evaded the tackle nimbly, looked up and clipped in a precise ball to Pier-Luigi Casiraghi, who chested it down then blazed over the Czech Republic's bar. In that one astonishing moment in the desperation of added time, Pier-Luigi Casiraghi went from hero to zero inside four days. By contrast, if anyone's stock can go up in a defeat, Gianfranco Zola's had.

For all Enrico Chiesa's promise, fulfilled in a goal against the Czechs on Friday night, the Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi will surely start again with Zola against Germany in what was beginning to look a formality of a match at Old Trafford on Wednesday but now, after Italy's 2-1 defeat by the Czechs, becomes the epic encounter befitting two great nations of the world game.

Zola had signalled himself one of the modern masters of that troublesome position betwixt the midfield and attack in the 2-1 defeat of Russia last Tuesday at Anfield and confirmed it in his cameo performance replacing Chiesa. Now his duel with Matthias Sammer promises to be a highlight of the tournament.

On reflection, it is no wonder that Zola looked relaxed at the Italians' training camp in Cheshire the day he was told he was dropped for the match against the Czechs. He wore, indeed, the expression of a man safe in the knowledge that he is one of the coach's favourites and secure in his position.

As is his wont, Sacchi caused waves with his selection to face the Czechs; five changes to the team that beat Russia so impressively, including the bullet-loader Zola and the marksman who was to turn blank-firer, Casiraghi. Now the coach, having endured a weekend of fierce criticism in Italy as a result of what looks close to complacency, may pair the ever-willing Fabrizio Ravanelli with Zola.

All Zola's footballing wit and invention, seen in his cutting pass to Casiraghi that rounded off a gorgeous movement of one-touch football and won the game against the Russians, will be needed now. To see such a player of quick brain, feet and movement going home after the first phase would be sad indeed.

The Italians have been this way before, however, and will take strength from it. Two years ago in the United States they lost their opening match to the Irish but squeezed through their group, eking out a win over Norway and a draw against Mexico. Then Roberto Baggio came to Sacchi's rescue with some match-winning performances, only to fall at the final penalty. Zola was then a peripheral figure, sent off unfortunately only 10 minutes into a substitute's appearance against Nigeria.

There is irony in Zola being seen as a saviour now, having replaced Baggio in the coach's affections and been chosen, with his unselfishness in both team and squad, ahead of such as Gianluca Vialli and Giuseppe Signori. He has the credentials; as well as occupying the Baggio role. Like the Italian man for the moment in 1990, Toto Schillaci, Zola is a Sicilian.

The appeal of him for a coach stubbornly set against those with any maverick in their make-up becomes apparent when Zola speaks. "Italy have many good players who can win the tournament but our most important quality is our teamwork. We work very hard and when a group of people work hard at something, they get results," he says.

Seven goals in qualifying, allied to the performance at Anfield last Tuesday, confirmed Zola can perform for Sacchi as Teddy Sheringham has for Terry Venables, though he is probably even sharper of thought, certainly of pace and a clever manipulator of a dead ball to boot. Like Sheringham, Zola has endured the doubts, after his first 10 games without a goal - though seven were as a substitute - with an engaging equanimity and a willing subservience.

As a character he is modest and charming, insisting on conducting interviews in the English he has been learning for just over a year now, possibly with a view to one of the Premiership paydirt transfers becoming attractive to Italians in another two years, when his contract with Parma expires, at the age of 31. "It would be difficult for me to play in England because I am short and there are so many high balls," he says mischievously.

It is Zola's temperament that has sustained him through the brickbats that accompany being a Sacchi disciple. As team-mate, then supposed successor to Diego Maradona at Napoli, he closed himself to the hysteria of the city and the personality.

"I learned a lot from Maradona," he says. "He is still the best player of all time. But we were only friends on the pitch. It was impossible to know that he was using drugs. Off the pitch, he had his life and I had mine." His career developed further with his move to Parma three years ago; an injury to Zola was a large reason for their fading late last season.

Small of stature but big of heart, Zola will undoubtedly shoulder willingly the burden of helping to keep Italy in the tournament. Should they fail, Zola's reputation ought to remain intact, but there will be a cause celebre in the Italian press to rival his namesake Emile's "J'accuse" on the Dreyfus affair. It will be called the Sacking of Sacchi.