Zola tips Nathaniel Chalobah to replace Frank Lampard at Chelsea
Chelsea are a club who frequently divide opinion but on one Blues-related topic at least there appears to be consensus: why on earth would they want to get rid of Frank Lampard?
The 34-year-old midfielder's contract is due to run out at the end of the season and, despite reports he might at last have been offered a new deal, there has still been nothing official from the club.
Lampard is in form, and could reach 200 Chelsea goals at Manchester City on Sunday. He is currently three goals short of becoming the club's record goalscorer, surpassing a mark that has stood for 44 years.
- Born: Sierra Leone, 12 December 1994
- Moved to England with parents when he was eight and joined Chelsea at 10.
- Won FA Youth Cup with Blues, signed professional contract in January 2012
- Played for England under-16s at 13, helped under-17s to Euro 2010 victory and called into under-21s this season. Also won England youth team player of year
- Made professional debut for Watford this season, making 27 appearances and scoring four goals
It is a puzzle to most, but not - it seems - to Lampard's former Chelsea team-mate Gianfranco Zola, who has been linked with a future role at the club. He suggests it might be because the club "wants to renew and to change".
Having played together at Chelsea for two years, Lampard has credited Zola's work ethic as an inspiration.
And in an intriguing development, it is Watford manager Zola who is now nurturing the player who could be Lampard's replacement.
Nathaniel Chalobah is well known to Chelsea fans already, having joined the club when he was 10 and progressed through the ranks to sign a professional contract in January 2012.
Born in Sierra Leone, he moved to England with his parents when he was eight and by the time he was 13 he was already playing for England's under-16s.
At 15, he helped the under-17 side win the European Championship after beating Spain in the final and, having captained the under-19s, this season he was called into Stuart Pearce's under-21's.
The 18-year-old is attempting to become the first English player since John Terry to graduate via the club's academy and become a first-team regular. But it is only since making his professional debut while on loan at Watford this season that he has shown his undoubted poise in a competitive environment.
The Hornets might be flying high in part down to a raft of loan players signed from Serie A club Udinese, but the England under-21 international has already become the team's midfield cornerstone since arriving in August.
Zola on Lampard's contract situation
"I can try to understand [why Chelsea want to release him]. I don't think it's down to the value the players has. I believe it's more because Chelsea wants to renew and to change. That is the only explanation that I can give to myself.
"It's a pity. Players like Frank or John Terry you would like them to play for Chelsea forever, it will be difficult but at the end of the day I think it might also be a good thing for Frank if he wants to change."
"Honestly, I didn't know much about him [before he arrived]," Zola said. "I knew he was talented and I knew he was potentially a very good player. He has been a surprise to me, a very good surprise.
"I saw him training and there was an opportunity because we were having a few problems and it was against Bristol City I put him in and straight away as soon as he came on you could see that he was one of those players who can make an impression."
Zola says that developing players is the part of his job he most enjoys and having been guided in his youth at Napoli by Diego Maradona, you get the sense that Chelsea could not have picked a better mentor for Chalobah.
Judging by the extra time the youngster spent on the field after training had finished, it looks like Zola's influence is already resonating.
Zola said: "When I was playing with Diego, he came to me and I was thinking and dreaming that one day I could be a good example for somebody else. Because of him I always pay a lot of attention on training, on doing everything right to keep improving.
"So I want to, if I can, transmit everything I have got inside and maybe help young players develop. Nathaniel could be the guy who replaces Frank and therefore I will try to give him everything I can in order to make him a better player."
Chalobah is equally effusive about the relationship and already has a demeanour where he is eager to learn.
He added: "The manager is very inspiring, I've seen clips of him on YouTube and Chelsea TV and some of the things he did as a player were just wonderful to watch.
"I think every single player here respects him and working under him is just one of the best things that could possibly have happened to me because he was a top, top player and I am aiming to be a top player.
"I did feel like I needed to come away and learn and get some game time, and Watford was probably the best place that I could come to because of the manager.
Chalobah on Terry's influence
"The media show him to be someone else but really and truly, he is a hero to a lot of the youngsters in the club and I think having him come through the academy motivates every single player. Some of the achievements he has had at Chelsea just motivate me to try and get to the top."
"I will make mistakes every now and then and we had a meeting today and he told me he would not get off my back until I did the right things so I couldn't ask for anything better really."
In appearance and position, it is obvious that Chalobah is a different player from Lampard but despite his young years, he has already registered some impressive achievements.
"Words can't describe how well this season has gone for me," he said, smiling. "It's just been all positives at the moment and I want to keep it going."
His next target is making his first-team debut for Chelsea next season and if recent evidence is a guide, it will represent his biggest challenge.
Fellow English midfielder Josh McEachran, 19, managed 17 first-team appearances in his first season, but two years later is now on loan at Middlesbrough.
Zola said: "Frank is more an offensive midfielder where he gets on the ball and scores important goals. Nathaniel can be very offensive as well but we are trying to give him the structure of more of a holding midfielder who organises the play from the back.
"Certainly the talent is there. He needs to work a lot to play at the level Chelsea are at, and as a more defensive midfielder you need to be good with the ball and without the ball; and without the ball I expect him to keep improving."