Zola hattrick puts Chelsea second
Gianfranco Zola was weighed down by so many compliments that it was almost unkind to the diminutive Italian to have him carry both the match ball and magnum of champagne away from Stamford Bridge and into the driving rain. It was entirely appropriate that all his Chelsea team-mates should mark Zola's first hat-trick with their autographs. Zola, generous to a fault, said his achievement was "even more special that it came in the middle of a great performance by the team." Even Ruud Gullit did not demur. "A perfect game," he purred.
Derby, the sixth best team in the land at kick off time, left the Bridge a severely diminished side. Derby could not match Zola and Mark Hughes in this voracious mood, and Jim Smith knew it.
"Quite brilliant," said Derby's manager of Chelsea's strikers. Smith, in unusually terse form, was not willing to detract from Chelsea's performance - but he did. "It could have been eight today - we did quite well. We were a bit soft."
Smith's reservations about his team, who were exposed in all departments put Chelsea's performance in colder perspective. Derby had conceded four goals, at Leeds and Liverpool, in their previous two away games. Also worth nothing was Smith's praise for Michael Duberry amid his intriguing assessment of Chelsea's greatest asset: "They are very strong through the middle."
That is something rarely associated with Chelsea teams, yet the statistics demonstrate their solidity: Eight clean sheets in 16 Premiership games. Chelsea have not won the championship since 1955 and have not been this high since 1978, so the King's Road can be excused its renewed bout of headiness. But titled debate is not idle talk.
"Obviously they can win it," said Smith. "They've got excellent players. But they have to finish above Manchester United." Both Gullit and Zola will not be dining out too much on this result.
"Every player was tuned in today," said the manager. "But it doesn't happen often; it could be quite different next week." Zola is already tuned into next Saturday's game at Tottenham, suddenly a distinctly tricky looking engagement. "This is the crucial moment," he said. "You have to show everybody that we can really win the title."
Zola showed here why he has been shortlisted as European Player of the Year, recovering the precision of finishing and virtuosity that won him the domestic award in May. He has now scored six times in his last five games. Two superb shots with the right foot sandwiched one scrambled effort with the left; even his second goal had the merit of tenacity as he challenged the six foot five-inch Mart Poom.
The others, both crisp low shots, were despatched with the certainty of a striker of the highest calibre. Mark Hughes was - and it cannot be resisted - the battering Ram, softening up Derby for the delicate punishment inflicted by Zola and Roberto Di Matteo.
The Welshman's scissor kick from 16 yards deserved reward for its sheer bravado; Poom spoiled the spectacle by fumbling the ball over the line. Nevertheless it was a happy memory for Hughes, booked for the fifth time, to take into his forthcoming three-match suspension.
As for Derby, Paulo Wanchope wandered nowhere and was substituted just after the hour, while the gifted Francesco Baiano was given little opportunity to show why Smith called him "my very own little Zola".
Instead Baiano watched Chelsea's Italians enjoy their party pieces. A one-two between them set up Zola's third goal; in this exchange, and with so many other contributions, Di Matteo makes creativity deceptively simple.
Chelsea: De Goey, Petrescu, Babayaro, Leboeuf, Hughes (Flo 79), Wise, Duberry, Le Saux, Di Matteo, Sinclair, Zola (Crittenden 86). Subs Not Used: Lambourde, Vialli, Hitchcock. Booked: Sinclair, Hughes, Di Matteo. Goals: Zola 12, Hughes 35, Zola 66, 77.
Derby County: Poom, Rowett, C. Powell, Yates (D Powell 77), Sturridge, Wanchope (Burton 62), Carsley, Eranio, Dailly, Kozluk, Baiano (Hunt 77). Subs Not Used: Hoult, Solis. Booked: Sturridge, Carsley, D Powell.
Referee: U D Rennie (Sheffield).