Younger Chelsea fans may forget that it wasn’t so long ago that title races and European aspirations weren’t top of the Stamford Bridge to-do list. But shortly before Roman Abramovich’s millions changed everything in west London, Gianfranco Zola’s mesmeric performances were the catalyst for a string of successes in the late ‘90s.
The Sardinian’s £4.5m transfer from Parma in 1996 proved to be one of the Premier League’s greatest transfer coups, as the nimble forward went on to score 67 goals in 274 appearances for the Blues and lead them to two FA Cups, the League Cup, the Cup Winners’ Cup and UEFA Super Cup.
1. The Cruyff turn and finish against Wimbledon
A sublime piece of skill from Zola helped the Blues through to the 1996/97 FA Cup Final, a tournament they would go on to win. The Italian found space as only he could, showing remarkable vision to completely change direction when receiving Roberto Di Matteo’s pass, leaving Dean Blackwell behind and coolly slotting past Neil Sullivan.
2. THAT backheel against Norwich
This moment of inspiration not only summed up Zola’s thrilling spontaneity as a footballer but marked his most fondly remembered moment in a Chelsea shirt. The Italian made a run to the front post to meet Graeme Le Saux’s low corner, letting it pass through his legs before delicately flicking the ball into the near top corner with his trailing heel.
After the match, Zola’s reaction spoke volumes of the man. Rather than basking in his own glory, he dedicated the exquisite backheel to an ill child he had met at a hospital.
3. The scoop assist for Poyet
Zola’s majestic playing style often produced assists that were every bit as memorable as the goals. This superbly weighted scoop pass to Gustavo Poyet sugar-coated a comfortable win against Sunderland in 1999.
With the Uruguayan steamrolling towards goal, Zola picked him out by dropping the ball between two Black Cats defenders and onto the right boot of the midfielder, who finished with aplomb.
4. Inspiring an almighty comeback against Liverpool
With Chelsea trailing 2-0 to Liverpool in the 1996/97 FA Cup and Zola having been partly responsible for one of the Reds’ goals, it didn’t look like this would be an afternoon to savour at Stamford Bridge.
However, everything changed in the second half as the Italian helped set up two and banged in a 25-yarder of his own to complete an unexpected and thrilling comeback.
5. The super sub who won European silverware
Chelsea may have won the Champions League and Europa League in recent years, but before Zola’s arrival they only had the 1970/71 Cup Winners’ Cup to their name on the continent.
Graham Rix’s decision to bring on the Italian as a substitute in the 1998 edition’s final paid off – after only 45 seconds he latched onto Dennis Wise’s through-ball and smashed in what would be the winning goal to end a 28-year wait for European glory.
6. Leaving Carragher on the ground… twice
In his final Chelsea appearance and with the home side a goal to the good, Zola turned on the skills to dribble around three Liverpool players and leave Carragher flat on his back not once but twice.
It was a remarkable demonstration of the close control that the Italian had in his locker, but it came at a price – the forward later admitted to Sky Sports that “for two minutes after I couldn’t touch the ball, because everyone was trying to kick the s**t out of me!”
7. Zola opens a Bromley gelato shop
After his retirement, the Magician kept on giving to the good people of London. In November 2015 he decided to focus on his passion for ice cream and opened a gelato shop along with fellow former Blues stars Roberto Di Matteo, Dennis Wise and Andriy Shevchenko.
‘UNICO’ in Bromley has brought the traditional ingredients and flavours of Bologna to south London, with Zola admitting to Chelsea TV that “it’s cheaper to have it here rather than have to go all the way to Bologna for a good ice cream”. Good on him.
8. His sublime final goal for Chelsea
Zola likes to do things stylishly and his final goal in a Chelsea shirt was typically exquisite. With the final seconds ticking down of a game against Everton that was already won, the Italian showed trademark determination to chase a long pass before somehow guiding a half-volley lob beyond the goalkeeper and into the opposite corner. Bellissimo!
9. Sending Irwin to the turf
There was no slow start for Zola in this one, as he raced onto Dan Petrescu’s pass after only two minutes, left the experienced Irwin on his backside with a cutback, stepped past Gary Pallister and fired in at Peter Schmeichel’s front post.
The sublime piece of individual skill earned Zola about the highest praise possible from opposing manager Alex Ferguson, who called him “a clever little bugger”.
10. The free-kick against Spurs
With his team 1-0 down to Tottenham in the league, Zola stepped up to take a set-piece. It didn’t immediately appear to be a dangerous position, being a good 25 yards from goal and almost at the corner of the box.
But what followed was textbook Zola. The Italian, rather than attempting to go over the wall as you’d expect, bent a high and fast-paced effort over the crowd and beyond a helpless Kasey Keller to draw roars of approval from the Stamford Bridge faithful.
11. A delicious chip against Oxford
Zola helped the Blues avoid a banana skin in this FA Cup fourth-round replay by scoring a superb second in a 4-2 win against Oxford United.
He was involved in the move from its inception, playing a short pass out wide before making his move, darting forward to meet the return ball just inside the edge of the penalty area then dispatching a dipping lob of pinpoint accuracy that bounced off the foot of the post and in.
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