That mission might have been doomed to failure but, almost a decade on, there was particular resonance yesterday to the comparison that was drawn between Zola and Eden Hazard by Roberto Di Matteo.
“Gianfranco was a wonderful talent, an artist I would say — Eden might become an artist as well,” he said. Di Matteo should know. He shared a dressing-room with Zola during six years at Chelsea and they were also team-mates in the Italy national team.
Hazard’s canvas on Wednesday night will be Stamford Bridge when, after an outstanding debut in the 2-0 win against Wigan on Sunday, he will play his first home match since arriving at Chelsea from Lille.
The season might be at its nascent stage but, on first impressions, the rush
to acclaim Hazard as the best of the new additions to the
Like Shinji Kagawa, at Manchester United, and Santi Cazorla at Arsenal, Hazard is another in the mould of Sergio Agüero or David Silva who proved at Manchester City last season that vision and technical quality have become more important in the English game than size and strength.
At 5ft 7in tall, with his low centre of gravity and ability to create as well as score, the comparisons with Zola are also legitimate. If anything, though, Hazard is even more versatile in his ability to play in any of the front four positions in the 4-2-3-1 system that Chelsea employed on Sunday.
“He’s played a lot on the wing and he’s played behind the striker,” said Di Matteo. “It was great to see him enjoying himself and getting his teeth into the Premier League. He had a good start, but it’s one game out of 38. It certainly gives him confidence.
"He’s a talented young boy. We’ll have to see how he grows into a man, and how quickly he will be an important player for Chelsea.”
In also noting his dribbling ability, Di Matteo was drawn towards another key point. As well as scoring and creating a goal for Chelsea, Hazard’s debut in England was notable for the way he soaked up a succession of heavy challenges but still kept running directly into the Wigan defence. Di Matteo expects more of the same but appears as convinced by Hazard’s physical durability as his technical skill.
“It’s good he got used to it quickly because that’s how it’s going to be,” he said. “He’s a strongly-built boy. We spoke during pre-season. He knows how to handle himself. He’s more focused on what he wants to do for the team, rather than what other people think about him. He’s got enough qualities to be able to get away from people.”
Having been sought after by all of Chelsea’s main rivals, the signing of Hazard also represented a renewed statement of intent by Abramovich, not just in the £32 million outlay but also in his desire to win with style.
In that regard, Hazard is one piece in a subtle but hugely significant evolution in style. A right-back — probably Marseille’s César Azpilicueta — is still likely to be added, as well as another striker, but already this Chelsea squad has its most distinct feel since Jose Mourinho rebuilt the team in 2004.
With Juan Mata also recruited last year, Oscar added this summer, Didier Drogba now departed and Frank Lampard playing in a deeper-lying midfield role, it is a side equipped to pass rather than power their way to silverware.
“With the new signings we’ve brought in, we’re certainly going to change a bit,” said Di Matteo. “We’ve shown some very good combination play, some good football. It’s about doing it consistently.
"There technical players will influence our game of course. But you shouldn’t expect a radical change, a revolution. It’s important to have a good balance to achieve that we want. We always have to have a balance in our team as well.”
That balance, though, has shifted significantly even since winning the