Gianfranco Zola is considered by many as a Chelsea legend and he helped to revolutionise the club before the takeover by Roman Abramovich. His Chelsea career is remembered by his dazzling footwork and ability to dribble like no one had ever seen at Stamford Bridge. Zola won six trophies in seven years at the club and contributed massively to each and every trophy won during this period.
Before the legacy of Zola was immortalised at Chelsea, he was 30-years-old and extremely unhappy with his situation at Parma and looking for a new challenge. Chelsea player-manager Ruud Gullit convinced the club to fork out £4.5m for the 5″6 attacker and Zola arrived in London in November 1996.
November was a harsh adjusting period for Chelsea’s new number 25 as he endured back-to-back 1-1 draws with Blackburn and Newcastle. Not many people knew what to expect from Zola in the first few games, as he had not been playing much at Parma he was out of touch with his normal style and December is when he properly arrived in the Premier League.
A disappointing 2-0 loss to Leeds seemed to be the catalyst for Zola’s improved performances and on the 7th December 1996 Chelsea welcomed Everton to the Bridge for Zola’s first standout game in a Blue shirt. Just 12 minutes is all it took for Zola’s first Chelsea goal and it was a belter. A free kick from 30+ yards out was awarded and Zola stepped up. The ball looped up and over the wall and neither Neville Southall or the player on the post could stop it nestling into the top right corner.
This goal was the epitome of what Gianfranco Zola was about, pure technique and fine crafted ability, developed through the tutelage of Diego Maradona at Napoli and so many more influential figures in Italy.
By half time Chelsea found themselves 2-1 down and were in desperate need of an equalizer to avoid another loss. The 55th minute saw Gullit gliding nonchalantly with the ball into the Everton half before picking out Zola with a trivela through ball. Zola ran onto it and evaded a sliding challenge into the process. Chelsea’s number 25 looked up and with the ball approaching the byline, crossed the ball into his fellow Italian Gianluca Vialli and he headed home to make it 2-2.
Zola’s next pieces of magic came on the 21st December against West Ham at Stamford Bridge. Dan Petrescu whipped in a ball to just inside the 18-yard box where a sublime flick from Zola landed the ball at Mark Hughes feet. Hughes took a touch inside and dragged a shot towards the left of the goal to make the score 1-0. This wouldn’t be the last goal the pair would combine for this month.
Julian Dicks was left for dead as soon as Zola picked up the ball about 35 yards out from the goal. Dicks tried to get tight to the Italian but to no avail as Zola cut inside onto his left which gave him at least 3 yards of separation. A few more touches driving forward and Dicks had caught up, but Zola wasn’t giving up just yet. Zola used the outside of his foot to send it back onto his right and left the West Ham number 3 in the dust, a quick look up and then the ball was fired across the keeper into the goal to make it 2-0 inside 10 minutes. Stupendous dribbling and the finish to go with it by ‘Magic Box’.
Boxing Day 1996 pitted Aston Villa against Chelsea in a battle between 5th and 7th place. Zola had clicked so well with Mark Hughes in the running up to Christmas and it appeared the Italian was certainly hitting top form. The Villa defence was unbeaten for 7+ hours as they went into this game at Villa Park and come the end of the season, they finished with the second best goals against tally in the league with 34.
No job too hard for Gianfranco and as soon as the clock struck the 66th minute he picked up the ball on the edge of the box, dribbled past one man like he wasn’t even there and then a deflected weak foot shot sent it through the legs of Mark Bosnich.
With the score at 1-0, Zola capitalised on a mistake from Fernando Nelson who tried to head it back to his Australian keeper and scored one of the easier goals of his career. The game would ultimately be sealed with this goal and Chelsea walked away with a clean sheet and a 2-0 win to a tough Villa side.
Just two days later Chelsea were in action again, this time at home against Sheffield Wednesday. The Hughes and Zola connection was in full effect as the two combined in the 9th minute. Hughes ran onto a ball in behind and a mishit cross combined with the bending run towards the back post by Zola, resulted in his 5th goal of the month.
Not much later in the 23rd minute Di Matteo played a lofted ball over the top and Zola ran onto the ball with ease. Two touches got the ball under control and a quick look up was all Zola needed to clip the ball to the middle of the box to find Hughes’ head. Hughes body position suggested that he was going to place the ball to the left of the goal but instead he headed back across Kevin Pressman to make it 2-0. This meant Zola’s tally for December now stood at 5 goals and 3 assists.
8 G/A in one month for ‘Magic Box’ is stupendous numbers for any player let alone it being in only his second month of English football. Many modern players strive for numbers near this total for the whole season not just one month. This December in 1996 can be seen as the emergence of Zola in English football and he continued to impress season after season at Stamford Bridge.
Zola was rightfully awarded the Premier League Player Of The Month for December 1996 and in the process seemingly crushed all myths and conspiracies that the Premier League was incredibly hard to adjust to. This is a testament to Zola’s incredible skill and versatility as we have seen Chelsea players like Kai Havertz and Timo Werner take a much longer time to adapt to the physicality and speed of English football. Italian football is notorious for being at a slower pace and more tactics based but Zola shut all of that out and seemed to become more confident as every game passed.
Written by Frankie