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Tiger Woods' Masters triumph evokes memories of Gianfranco Zola's miracle season

After Tiger Woods rolled back the years to win the Masters on Sunday, we look back at Gianfranco Zola's 'miracle season' in 2002/03, when the Blues' Italian magician arguably played out his best campaign in west London at the age of 36.

For years it looked as though the biggest superstar golf has ever seen would become, as our American friends would put it, the 'winningest' athlete to grace the sport. Between 1997 and 2008, Woods won 14 majors – which are the top four tournaments in the golfing calendar – and he was on course to surpass the great Jack Nicklaus' record of 18, which has stood since 1986.

Sport is never straightforward, though. As a series of injuries and off-the-course issues derailed his career over the course of the next decade, many were left wondering if Tiger Woods had anything left in the tank.

As he proved across a scintillating four days at the famous Augusta National Golf Club, reports of Tiger's demise were greatly exaggerated and he produced a wonderful performance to have the famous Green Jacket placed upon his shoulders for the fifth time, and first for 14 years.

It has been described as one of the great sporting comeback stories of all time, and some have even gone so far as to describe it as a miracle. However you view it, there's no doubting Tiger's weekend at Augusta has captured the imagination of sports fans and writers the world over.

One man who would have taken a keen interest in all this is Gianfranco Zola, himself a handy golfer after taking up the sport after joining Chelsea in 1996. Kevin Hitchcock, our long-term understudy goalkeeper, was his regular playing partner, which helped the pair strike up a lifelong friendship.

Well, Zola and Woods share more than just a passion for the links, as the little Italian maestro, who is on Maurizio Sarri's coaching staff, can point to a spectacular comeback of his own during his playing days.

After joining Chelsea from Parma in November 1996, 'ZOLA 25' became the shirt every Blues fan wanted, as he produced football from another galaxy, unlike anything we'd seen before at Stamford Bridge. Within six months he became the first Chelsea player to win the FWA Footballer of the Year award, guiding us to FA Cup glory and establishing himself as the most universally loved player in the league.

Over the course of the next four seasons, the magic didn't stop. More trophies followed, including a Cup Winners' Cup delivered by Zola's explosive cameo against Stuttgart in the final, and he led us into the Champions League for the first time in our history. He could do no wrong.

Then, something changed in his sixth season in west London. Claudio Ranieri stumbled upon one of the best strike partnerships ever seen at the Bridge, as Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen linked up to devastating effect and their almost-telepathic understanding saw them combine for 52 goals and 29 assists.

Sure, Zola scored perhaps his most famous goal in this campaign when he met a Graeme Le Saux corner with a mid-air flick against Norwich City in the FA Cup, but it looked like his time with the club was ending with a whimper.

That would not have been befitting of such a legendary figure, though, and Zola came back for pre-season in the summer of 2002 with a renewed vigour, working harder than he ever done before to rediscover the old magic.

What followed was the stuff of dreams. He plundered 16 goals, which was comfortably his best tally in a single season, including stunning free-kicks against Arsenal, Tottenham and Newcastle. His peers throughout the Premier League recognised his remarkable comeback and he was among the nominees for the PFA Player of the Year award.

Though he missed out on that honour, he was named Chelsea's Player of the Year for the second time in his career, as he guided us back into the Champions League. His last goal for the club, against Everton, was a stunning lob from a ridiculous angle which, had there been a Goal of the Season award back then, would have been a serious contender for further personal silverware.

Perhaps even better was his final act as a player at Chelsea was to run rings around Jamie Carragher by the corner flag, leaving the defender on his backside and swiping aimlessly at thin air, as full-time edged ever closer in a game against Liverpool which would confirm our place back amongst Europe's elite at the expense of the Reds.

It felt as if he was giving us one final moment to remember him by, the exclamation mark at the end of an extraordinary seven years.

'I didn't know it was my final act, I swear to God I didn't know,' he said in an interview for the book Blue Day.

'That season was my miracle, if I can say that. I didn’t play much the previous year and people were saying that I was finished. I remember speaking to the manager at the end of that season and telling him, “Next year I’m going to come back stronger than ever.”

'I worked hard all through the summer and when I came back I was sharp and I was focused. Things went really well and I rate that as one of my best years, if not the best.'

At the time we didn't know it was the last we would see of him in a competitive match for the club, as he soon departed for his home-town team Cagliari, having played 311 games, a club record at the time for most appearances by an overseas player.

His tally of 80 goals don't tell the full story of his influence, as he was as much a creator as he was a scorer, and his wizardry with the ball at his feet left fans gasping in disbelief. And we remember all the more fondly thanks to that 'miracle' season, which reminded us why he is one of the best we've ever seen at Stamford Bridge.

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