What the Blues need may be a Zola-like spark

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 March, 2011, 12:00am

From the ill-timed sacking of assistant coach Ray Wilkins to Didier Drogba's battle with malaria to the departure of seasoned veterans like Michael Ballack and Ricardo Carvalho... there's been no shortage of theories explaining Chelsea's fall from grace this season.

Even after a spirited 2-1 home victory over leaders Manchester United midweek, the Blues lie in fourth position, 12 points off the pace with 11 games left, giving them virtually no chance of retaining their Premier League title.

But according to Gianfranco Zola, the man once voted the club's greatest ever player, one of the main reasons behind Chelsea's inability to fire this season could lie with a forgotten midfielder who has played just three first team games.

Yossi Benayoun is on the long road back to fitness after rupturing his Achilles tendon in September during a Carling Cup game against Newcastle United. The Israeli international had joined the club only two months earlier from Liverpool in a GBP5.5millon deal.

'They really miss Benayoun, who, in my opinion, was a very influential player,' Zola said. 'He was brought in to bring something different to the club, a little spark. He was someone for the last 25 minutes who could create something... something Zola-like maybe.'

The former Italy international smiles with a hint of embarrassment as he mentions his own name in the context of the current squad. Even though he was the talisman as Chelsea won five trophies in the late 1990s, the modest 44-year-old seems reluctant to beat his own drum.

He speaks as the Champions League trophy gleams in the morning sun behind him at a Kuala Lumpur cafe. As a Uefa ambassador, Zola kicked off a four-nation Asian trophy tour, which will culminate in Hong Kong on April 15-17.

Although he was manager of West Ham United as recently as 10 months ago, Zola is still a huge Chelsea fan. His days at Stamford Bridge began in November 1996 under manager Ruud Gullit and ended in May 2003 just before the Roman Abramovich revolution after 297 appearances and 80 goals in all competitions.

His golden year was 1998 when Zola helped the Blues win three trophies - the English League Cup, the Uefa Super Cup and the Uefa Cup Winners' Cup. Denied a starting place because of injury in the Cup Winners' Cup final against Stuttgart, he came off the bench to score the winner in less than 30 seconds. While Zola agrees that it is difficult to compare eras, he believes that the current squad could benefit from having the kind of flair players that he once called teammates.

Benayoun, he suggests, is more like a Chelsea midfielder of a decade ago. 'We were more creative because there were a lot of skillful players back then like Gustavo Poyet, Dan Petrescu and Di Matteo,' he said. 'Don't get me wrong: there are plenty of skillful Chelsea players today - and they are physically stronger - but today's football is more structured and more about systems. We had more freedom.'

Chelsea are too far behind in the league to mount a serious challenge and were knocked out of the FA Cup by Everton. But in the Champions League, Zola has high hopes for Carlo Ancelotti's men. 'That was a great result they got recently in Denmark - and winning the Champions League can change everything about this season,' he said.

Chelsea, Zola said, will be stronger once Frank Lampard gets more matches under his belt after a long injury layoff. And despite Fernando Torres' failure to open his Chelsea scoring account in three matches, Zola believes the Spain striker will ultimately be a success at Stamford Bridge.

'Torres is only 26 so he has been brought in for the future more than for the present,' he said. 'On the pitch, his teammates just have to get used to the way he plays and the way he moves. But he's a classy player and I'm sure that he will be successful in time.'

When Zola joined Chelsea, he had passed his 30th birthday and won the Serie A with Napoli (playing alongside Diego Maradona) and the Uefa Cup at Parma. And like Torres, his debut for the London club was less than smooth. 'I remember when I'd just come to England that the first game I played was at Blackpool,' he said. 'The day after my picture was in the paper with the words 'Welcome to England, Zola'.

'When I looked at the picture I saw myself upside down with my feet in the air and my head towards the ground after someone had just tackled me.'

But Zola would taste success later that season by winning the first of two FA Cups, helping Chelsea break a drought of more than a quarter of a century in the competition. It began a magical seven years at the club for a trickster who had moved to England after falling out of favour in Serie A.

'To be honest I didn't expect the success I had at Chelsea and I was surprised that I settled in so well and so quickly,' he said. 'I went there after having a bad year with Parma so I had a lot to prove to myself and people. So I gave it everything.'

Now as Chelsea's best ever player and one of their most passionate fans, the man known as Franco is hoping that the Blues can finish off FC Copenhagen this month before marching all the way to May's Champions League final at Wembley.