Gianfranco Zola feels the magic of the FA Cup is still very much alive as anticipation builds ahead of our fifth-round tie against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on Monday night.
The Italian won the competition twice as a player with Chelsea, in 1997 and 2000, and is hoping he can help this season’s Blues squad experience the same joy in his current role as assistant first-team coach, while dismissing any suggestion the FA Cup’s importance has diminished during the intervening years.
‘I hope not,’ said Zola. ‘I understand that the Premier League, the Champions League, they represent a lot for the club, for the players, but I am one of those that I keep believing that this is a great competition. It is one of the best I played in and I really hope that it will still be considered so by everyone.
‘Wrongly, I assumed that it was considered the same value as the Italian cup and until we really won it, I didn’t realise how important it was for the people, for everyone involved with the club. It’s been a surprise, one of the best surprises I’ve had in football.
‘I really like it, not just because I have a good record in it, but just because considering that everyone can compete in this, even the non-league teams, and everyone can try to reach their dream. It’s magnificent, having a dream in football is amazing, and that’s what I appreciate about the competition.’
He was also pleased to see the team return to winning ways at Malmo in the Europa League, but is still demanding more from the team as a collective in the days and weeks to come, as we continue to compete for silverware across four fronts.
‘The characters in this group, like the one I had in my time as a player, don’t like losing. Maybe they show it in a different way, but it is wrong to make comparisons like that. We don’t like losing and they reacted on Thursday and they continue to react.
‘It would be good if we could react more as a team, rather than individuals, because I think even against Manchester City we reacted, yes, but we reacted individually. There were players who were taking the responsibility and they wanted to change the situation on their own, but what we are building here is a philosophy of playing and we need to learn to react all together.
‘It is not enough that one player gets the ball and tries to beat two players. That’s not the way we win games in the way we are trying to play. We just need to get this understanding of working together, reacting together, pressing together. That is the way to win games in the way we play.’
Zola also explained how that idea of the collective is all part of the positive brand of football Maurizio Sarri is trying to implement at Chelsea, with everyone sharing the belief that they can reach the level of performance they are aiming for.
‘That is the philosophy of how this coach wants to play. To have control of the games, to play his own football all the time, and to be better than the opposition. It’s very ambitious, what he’s trying to do, especially when you play in a league like the Premier League, where there are two or three teams that are already two or three years ahead of you. I know it’s very ambitious, but ambition is an important thing.
‘You have to believe in what you’re doing and try and work hard. Maybe adjust a few things to be competitive as much as you can straight away, but then always have in front where you want to get. I think this manager has always said that we’ve been going through tough moments, but the belief that we can get where we want is still strong and we are pushing in that direction.’