Villa's defence had clocked up seven hours without being breached when Zola scored twice in five minutes. That made it four goals in four games for Zola and seventh place for Chelsea. With four home games and a trip to Nottingham to come, they could be up there by February.
Initially Ruud Gullit, who has become as fluent in managerspeak as his other languages, would not be drawn on their prospects but, betrayed by his natural eloquence, he eventually said: "I think it is very open. More teams can challenge for the title than before."
He also mentioned that Zola has clicked so well with Mark Hughes that Gianluca Vialli will start on the bench when he recovers fitness. With Franck LeBoeuf and Dennis Wise likely to be sitting alongside him Chelsea appear to have depth.
So, in theory, do Villa. When Brian Little, after an hour of Villa sterility, swapped Mark Draper and Savo Milosevic for Sasa Curcic and Tommy Johnson it seemed a good move.
It was almost vindicated within a minute as Johnson crossed to Dwight Yorke at the far post. Though Steve Clarke blocked his goalbound header the ball fell to Ian Taylor. But his shot was weak and Frode Grodas saved.
A minute later Zola, drifting across the box, suddenly whipped in a left- foot shot. It took a slight deflection off Ugo Ehiogu left Mark Bosnich wrong-footed and beaten.
Four minutes later the goalkeeper was pounding the turf in frustration as Zola pounced on an error. A long ball was headed back to the Australian by Fernando Nelson but, with Zola coming in, Bosnich hesitated allowing man and ball past him.
"They were two bad goals," Little said. "Mark should have done better with both. The first one only looked a slight deflection, after the second the contest was over. Yet, if Ian had scored 30 seconds earlier, we might have been celebrating instead."
"It came off Ugo's foot," Bosnich said. "I thought I did well to get to the ball with my leg. For the second I was worried if I continued with the challenge and caught Zola I would concede a penalty. With hindsight the decision was wrong - but everybody is good with hindsight."
It was Chelsea's first clean sheet since early September, 17 games ago. And, apart from that double effort from Yorke and Taylor, they never looked like conceding. The difference, recognised Little, was Gullit who played at sweeper. "He keeps it right for them," the Villa manager said.
While Gullit marshalled the defence Craig Burley shone in midfield. He created the only real chances of the opening hour. Eddie Newton shot too close to Bosnich with the first, the keeper made a good save from Zola with the second. There should have been another chance but Roberto Di Matteo, breaking onto Zola's pass, was hauled down by Riccardo Scimeca. The defender was very fortunate to see yellow, not red.
Villa had won their five previous league games but it was hard to see why. The two teams, playing identical formations and styles, cancelled each other out. With both sides defending deep there was no space to attack and the teams took turns in passing across midfield. Sometimes these tactical matches are described as footballing chess. This was more Trivial Pursuit. The easy questions - `can I make a square pass here?' and `can I lay the ball back there?' were answered well enough. But when it came to `can I beat this man and have a shot?' and `can I slide a pass behind the defence?' the tests were failed.
Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, Staunton, Scimeca; Nelson, Taylor, Draper (Curcic, 60), Townsend, Wright; Milosevic (Johnson, 60), Yorke. Substitutes not used: Rachel (gk), Tiler, Joachim.
Chelsea (3-5-2): Grodas; Duberry, Gullit, Clarke; Petrescu, Burley, Newton, Di Matteo, Myers (Phelan, 60); Zola, Hughes. Substitutes not used: Hitchcock (gk), Johnsen, Nicholls, Sinclair.
Referee: P Danson (Leicester).Reuse content