Gianfranco Zola’s place in Chelsea’s European trophy-winning history is well-assured but now, as Maurizio Sarri’s assistant, he can play his part in adding the 2018/19 Europa League to our cup collection if we beat Arsenal tomorrow in Baku.
The Sardinian so famously scored the winner in the Cup Winners’ Cup final of 1998 and then played when we added the UEFA Super Cup a few months later. Now it is time for the class of 2019 to produce their best in a showcase European final, and Zola has reviewed the latter stages of the knockout rounds that brought us this far.
‘We’ve been pretty consistent and we’ve played good football, and I would say we’ve deservedly made the final,’ Zola reckons. ‘I’m very pleased and I think that goes for everyone too.
‘This is a team and a club which means a lot to me. It’s great to see the club enjoying a success like reaching the final of the Europa League. There are, of course, players here who’ve won so much, but there are others, including members of staff, who haven’t won anything yet, so achieving an objective such as winning the Europa League would be extraordinary for everyone.|
‘We’re very pleased to be competing for the trophy, although it won’t be an easy game. We’re all very excited about being involved in this fixture.’
The Blues progressed comfortably from the group stage before convincingly overcoming Malmo and Dynamo Kiev in the early knockout rounds. Then came two harder ties – against Slavia Prague when after winning away and going further ahead we had to survive a spirited fight-back by the Czech side, and against Eintracht Frankfurt when penalties were needed to make the final.
‘It was above all due to our start,’ said Zola on how the second leg against Slavia was won.
‘We made a fast start, scoring three times, playing top-class football and that allowed us to build a lead over them.
‘They came out firing in the second half but our lead was probably already enough. They came back into the game on their own merit because they never stopped trying, but it was partly down to us too, because we stopped playing a little too early against a side that we knew like to battle. They are a very powerful team and they really tested us.
‘Eintracht Frankfurt are a very similar side to Slavia in terms of their formation - they’re a very physical side who play high-tempo. We played a lot better in the first leg where, after an average start in which we conceded, we equalised and played well.
‘We dominated after the break and we should have been a bit more clinical, because we created lots of chances but we weren’t able to score a second. Overall though the team played very well.
‘In the second leg it was the opposite, in that we made a fast start and then they finished it the stronger of the two sides. We ultimately went through on penalties but I think over the course of the two legs, Chelsea deserved to go through.’
Now a more familiar test awaits in the form of local rivals from London N5.
‘Arsenal are a team that have gone through some highs and lows, but when they are on a high, they’re an extremely dangerous side that can beat anyone,’ said Zola. ‘They’re extremely dangerous going forward, particularly on the counter-attack. They’re one of those sides that can make life difficult for anyone, and they’ll certainly do just that against us.
‘We’ll have to do well to contain their drives forward and, at the same time, use our many qualities to hurt them. It’ll be an intense game that will be in the balance until the end.’