Manchester — so much to answer for. But not as much as those bastard rail operators who do their utmost to screw up football supporters’ travel with regular weekend engineering works. Despite their best efforts, a healthy number of travelling Blues succeeded in reaching Maine Road in time for kick-off. The atmosphere on the way to the ground was friendly, with the locals fairly pessimistic about their chances, apart from the poor deluded fool who had a bet on a 4-0 home win.
Injuries forced Chelsea to line up with two unexpected wide midfielders. Jody Morris took the right flank while Enrique de Lucas played on the left. While not looking particularly threatening, it at least made the midfield more solid. This appeared to be Claudio Ranieri’s plan, as the Blues began by sitting back and inviting City to attack. He later claimed that Chelsea were looking to counterattack, but they failed to produce a single shot on target in the opening half.
It was City how looked more likely to score early on. Desailly was lucky to get away with a tug on Shaun Goater to prevent him from going clean through. Cudicini made a couple of saves and his post came to the rescue on one occasion. The best Chelsea could muster was a few corners, all of which seemed to go directly into Schmeichel’s gloves.
Half time brought no changes to the Chelsea line-up, although the general consensus in the away end was that Gudjohnsen should have been brought on to replace an out-of-sorts Hasselbaink. City pressed early in the second half and Cudicini produced another fine save to deny Foe, but Chelsea gradually gained a foothold and began to attack.
Another corner was forced and preceded by an ironic shout of “keeper’s” from your correspondent. As if on cue, Petit’s near post flick was met by an unmarked Gianfranco Zola to head Chelsea into the lead from close range. As far as City were concerned, that was that. They were as good as beaten as soon as Zola’s header hit the net. Keegan tried to change things by bringing on Huckerby for Goater. The Chelsea fans responded by singing: “Feed the goat and you’ll go down.” But the dimwit Guardian reporter attributed it to the City fans singing: “Feed the goat or we’ll go down.”
With City trying to press, Le Saux sent Zola clear with a simple pass with the outside of his left boot. Zola advanced on Schmeichel, looked up to see Hasselbaink arriving to his right and clinically finished by firing across the ’keeper and into the net. The magical Italian still had time to send Hasselbaink through to score the third with a left-footed thunderbolt before being substituted in the dying moments. Not for the first time, Zola received a standing ovation from all sides of an away ground — credit the City fans with appreciating genius when they see it.
After the final whistle, Zola came back onto the pitch to thank the Chelsea fans who had been singing his name from the start and were now singing it louder than ever. At the grand old age of 36, he now tops the Premiership goal-scoring table with eight so far this season and looks as though he can go on forever. “Gian-fran-co Zo-la, la-la la-la la-la, Gian-fran-co Zo-la, la-la la-la la-la,” and repeat all the way home.
Chelsea line-up: Cudicini — Melchiot, Gallas, Desailly, Le Saux — Morris, Lampard, Petit, de Lucas — Hasselbaink, Zola (Oliveira, 89)
Unused subs: Pidgeley, Ferrer, Terry, Gudjohnsen