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Gianfranco Zola urges Chelsea’s young stars not to fear big-money arrivals of Timo Werner and Co

After a year in which Roman Abramovich’s chequebook stayed firmly shut, Chelsea have been splashing the cash again.

As soon as the club’s 12-month transfer ban was lifted, prolific Germany striker Timo Werner arrived from RB Leipzig for £53million and Hakim Ziyech completed a £38m move from Ajax.

And they are not finished yet. Frank Lampard is on the lookout for a new goalkeeper and is expected to seal a big-money deal for Kai Havertz from Bayer Leverkusen.

Chelsea’s young stars — who stepped up so impressively to help the club secure a place in next season’s Champions League — must be wondering if their breakthrough season was a one-off.

But rather than fear the competition for places, they should embrace their new team-mates and learn from them. That is the view of Blues legend Gianfranco Zola, who had arguably the greatest mentor for a young, creative player in the late 1980s.

‘I would have not been the player I was if I didn’t train with Diego Maradona,’ he explains, having been at Napoli with the Argentina great between 1989 and 1991.

‘He was so influential on every aspect of my game. I promise you — I would have been another Gianfranco Zola if I hadn’t trained and played with Maradona every day.’

Zola arrived at Chelsea from Parma in 1996 for £4.5m and helped change the face of English football. When he returned to Italy with Cagliari seven years later, he did so as a giant of the game. All 5ft 6in of him.

Too small to cope with the brutality of the Premier League, predicted the naysayers. Wrong. Zola showed us how football should be played — just as Maradona had shown him during their two years together.

‘Finally they have bought someone shorter than me,’ joked Maradona when Zola arrived from Sardinian team Torres in 1989. Maradona took the Italian under his wing to help nurture a genius. Zola saw a similar situation at Chelsea.

‘I don’t think John Terry would have been the player he was if he hadn’t had Marcel Desailly or Frank Leboeuf in front of him with us at Chelsea,’ Zola tells Sportsmail at a Kick It Out event in conjunction with player agency Unique Sports Management.

‘What makes you better is not playing every single game in a modest championship. What makes you better is playing 10 games in a very competitive league. Because of players like myself, Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and so many others, the game in England is at such a high level.

‘If you want to be involved you have to be as good. And then, if you are good enough, you will become very good.

‘There is a common mistake people make. They say, “We need to play the young English boys”. Of course, but only if they are good. How can you measure that? If they are playing with good players and if they can fit into the level of the good players. That’s why, because of the level of the Premier League, England has so many talented players.’

Having decided to step away from football last summer after his exit as Chelsea No 2 when Maurizio Sarri left to become Juventus boss, Zola is keeping his eye in. Fully rested from his self-enforced break, you get the impression Zola is itching to have another crack at unearthing English football’s next gem.

‘It’s been a quiet year,’ he adds. ‘I took a bit of distance, I needed to do that and I’m happy I did.’

Inevitably, Zola pays close attention to Chelsea and is optimistic about his old club under former team-mate Lampard.

‘Chelsea are doing well considering they have a lot of young players in the team and they lost a very influential player in Eden Hazard. ‘Chelsea is a very demanding club. They need to be in the Champions League and they need to win trophies because that is what the club has been doing for some time.’

And they can do it with a blend of youth and experience. Just ask Zola.

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