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Dec 14, 2008

Zola returns to upset Chelsea

As most of Chelsea's all-time greats are either deceased or still playing in their current team, this occasion was always going to be something of a novelty for the Stamford Bridge faithful.

Other than a couple of brief flourishes in the 1950s and 1970s, this club/franchise's history of winning trophies started in the 1996/97 season and it was no coincidence that Gianfranco Zola arrived on the Chelsea landscape at that very moment.

The bold new era Chelsea embarked on under the unconventional leadership of chairman Ken Bates needed a genuine world-class hero after years of second rate 'legends' at Stamford Bridge and Zola's quick feet, endearing smile and passion to entertain allowed him to fill the void.

This brilliant little Italian didn't take long to establish himself as he was instrumental in the Blues' FA Cup success at the end of his first season and when he slotted home the winning goal in the European Cup Winners' Cup Final a year later, Zola became a Chelsea icon for eternity.

The club he was playing for had rarely been popular among neutrals in the game, yet this was a character who every football fan could warm to. Quite simply, there was nothing to dislike about a player who could curl delicious free-kicks in the top corner, dribble past opponents with ease and do it all with a humble charm.

But his first move into management is not going according to plan. Just three months into his tenure as boss, Zola is already publicly questioning whether the project he took on when he agreed to succeed Alan Curbishley as Upton Park boss may be derailed by the club's apparently critical financial plight.

Last Monday's comprehensive home defeat against Tottenham did little to silence the fears that Zola lacks the experience to succeed at West Ham, yet this performance against his old club offered an alternative view. Oozing with energy and determined to prove their doubters wrong, Zola got a commendable response from his troops as they claimed a fine point at Stamford Bridge.

He arrival at his old home was typically comical. The television cameras showed him walking towards the home team dressing room before breaking out his trademark smile and sheepishly turning to his left to fill the visitors room. It must have been a curious experience for Zola and his assistant Steve Clarke, who will always be associated with Chelsea whatever he achieves at West Ham.

Zola started with two strikers and the pairing of Carlton Cole and Craig Bellamy looked a threat on the break before the latter of the two fired home the game's first goal after 33 minutes. Chelsea claimed Mark Noble had handled in the build-up, the television replays suggested it had come off his shoulder instead.

The boos that greeted the half-time break left Blues boss Luiz Felipe Scolari in no doubt that the moment had come for him to unleash some of his trademark Brazilian temper. With Deco and Nicolas Anelka among those looking well below par, the industry shown by Zola's team meant they had earned their advantage.

Avram Grant floated the theory that Didier Drogba and Anelka are incapable of playing together when he was in charge of Chelsea last season and Scolari's determination to play with a lone striker meant he had to leave Drogba on the bench for this game.

All that changed after their woeful opening half and Michael Ballack was the victim as Chelsea started the second half with two high quality strikers as opposed to one. It proved to be double the trouble for West Ham as just six minutes after the re-start, the imposing Drogba was involved in the build-up to an equaliser finished off by Anelka, who notched his 100th Premier League goal.

Drogba's influence on this game was immediate. A modern day Chelsea great, his demeanour differs greatly from that of Zola as he constantly appears to be grumpy and plays with an attitude that is hard to admire. What cannot be questioned, however, is his ability and with his pace and power troubling West Ham from the moment he set foot on the pitch, this game was only heading one way.

Wave after wave of Chelsea attacking menace rained down on West Ham's goal and after Drogba went close with a 67th minute effort, it seemed as if Zola's side would inevitably concede again.

However, they refused to crack and Carlton Cole even had a chance snatch a famous winner for West Ham in injury time. Despite the near miss, Zola could reflect with pride on an improved performance from his team as he denied his beloved Blues two more points on home soil.

"For the first ten or 15 minutes, I could not understand what was going on as the fans were singing my name and I am sorry I did not wave back at them," he said, showing typical dignity. "I'm not sure whether I am more tired than my players right now as this has been a tough week.

"I didn't want to celebrate our goal too much because Chelsea will always mean a lot to me, but I can celebrate next week as we have to try and build on this performance. It was a great reaction after what happened against Tottenham on Monday."

On the club's reported financial difficulties, he was unequivocal. "I've been told we will not be selling our best players in January and the reports saying something else are not true. I still believe I can finish the project I came here to take on and hopefully no one will change the situation."

As for Scolari, he was left to reflect on yet more dropped points on home soil as his side followed up the rest of the Premier League's big four this weekend by failing to record a victory. "It was a very difficult game for us," said the Chelsea manager. "We had the chances to win, but in the end it is two more points gone and this is something to worry about.

"Away from home, our record is fantastic as we have much more space. Now we are thinking too much about the problems we have at home and we are not scoring enough goals. It is something we have to find a solution to very quickly."

The bigger picture may be that Chelsea's inability to turn Stamford Bridge into a fortress may well cost them the Premier League title, but this was not a day to search for negatives.

Gianfranco Zola is one of those rare football personalities who has an ability to sprinkle happiness wherever he goes and just for once, this often cynical reporter was willing to be touched by the optimism he represents.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Matthew Upson

Arsene Wenger has not made too many mistakes in the players he has released from his Arsenal academy, but he may wonder whether Upson could do him a job right now. He was impressive again against the duel threat of Drogba and Anelka.

ALWAYS A HERO: It took a matter of five minutes for Zola to hear a familiar chorus of tribute from his adoring public in the Matthew Harding Stand away to his right. It was a worthy tribute for a Chelsea legend.

THE BRIDGE RESPONDS: Soccernet's Insider is happy to report that this often depressingly silent stadium was rocking with atmosphere on this occasion. While the occasional supporters who sit around us in the press box were as muted as ever, the rest of the stadium made up for it by responding to the chants of the West Ham followers in the right manner.

BELLAMY THE MENACE: Some people are born with a chip on their shoulder, but permanently grumpy West Ham striker Craig Bellamy has an entire fry up to carry on his Welsh frame. He spent this entire match arguing with match officials as Chelsea skipper John Terry.

ZOLA VERDICT: The goalposts have moved since Zola took on the West Ham job in September as the club finds itself in a different financial position than it was three months ago and you wonder what will happen if star players leave in January. It would be great to see this affable character succeeds in management, but he may struggle to prove his worth in his current posting.

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