Football: Chelsea haunted by Italian supremacy

The portents are not good for England's last team in Europe, writes Glenn Moore
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The Independent Online
TUCKED into their corner of the Stadio Romeo Menti the Chelsea fans taunted those supporters of other English clubs watching on Channel 5.

"One team in Europe, only one team in Europe," went the cry. Had they been patriotically inclined the Vicenza fans that surrounded them on Thursday night could have replied with the Italian equivalent of: "Four teams in Europe, we've got four teams in Europe.'

Four winning teams as well. Vicenza, Juventus, Internazionale and Lazio were all victorious in their first legs of European semi-finals this week. Vicenza defeated Chelsea in the European Cup-Winners' Cup, Juventus thrashed Monaco in the European Cup and, in the Uefa Cup, Lazio won away to Atletico Madrid and Internazionale at home to Spartak Moscow.

Italian clubs have dominated Europe ever since English teams were banned in the wake of the Heysel disaster. Of the 36 trophies contested since they have won 12 and competed in a staggering 23 finals. The rate has even improved since English clubs returned in 1991. Juventus and Lazio are already favourites to add to that tally this year and, though Chelsea are confident of overhauling Thursday's 1-0 deficit at Stamford Bridge in a fortnight - and becoming only England's fourth finalist in that time - Vicenza cannot be written off.

Vicenza's win encapsulated many of the reasons for Italy's success in European club competition. They had, as George Graham once said lovingly of Milan, "good players working hard". Vicenza were billed as a team without stars and it is true they had no familiar names and only one foreigner in the 18-man squad, the Uruguayan right-back Gustavo Mendez.

But they still had good players with Lamberto Zauli's ball control, as he outwitted three Chelsea defenders to score the only goal, illustrative of the quality of technique. The tireless work of the wide men, Marco Schenardi and Gabriele Ambrosetti, typified the side's grafting qualities.

The irony for many English observers is that the strengths of Vicenza and many other Italian sides - organisation, balance, patience and hard work - is reminiscent of the Liverpool and Nottingham Forest sides that once dominated Europe. The 4-4-2 formation and pressing game now so familiar in Serie A was once the modus operandi of the English clubs when they ruled the roost.

Now Chelsea, with their multi-national side, switch from one style to another as their play-manager Gianluca Vialli seeks a way of combining the 4-3-3 shape he knew at Juventus with his personnel.

Thursday's attempt did not work and it also upset two key players, Dan Petrescu and Gianfranco Zola, both of whom were asked to play out of position in a wide attacking role. Their contrasting responses - Zola working hard in vain, Petrescu only showing passion when substituted - were indicative of their different personalities but each revealed the need for Vialli to get his tactics right and the incompatibility of his nice-guy approach to the realities of management.

While Petrescu stormed off angrily when replaced Zola, so desperate for an impressive performance in his homeland to lift his World Cup chances, waited to the end to lament: "I'd like to play in my position but I am playing for the team, not myself. If the manager needs me to play there I have to accept it."

Petrescu's petulance is not Vialli's only problem as he prepares for tomorrow's match at Derby. Ed De Goey was outstanding in goal but, under Vialli's professed two-keeper policy he now faces a 13-day lay-off before the crucial second-leg with Vicenza at Stamford Bridge on 16 April. In between Dmitri Kharine is due to play three Premiership matches, Vialli having said the Russian plays League games and the Dutchman cup matches.

This policy is thought to be motivated in part by a desire to discover, before the end of the season, whether Kharine has fully recovered from his lengthy knee injury. However, as goalkeeping coach, Eddie Niedz-wiecki, admitted on the flight back, "The situation is not ideal and it's going to come to a head sooner or later."

De Goey himself said: "It is frustrating and I'm not happy about it. I've never been in a situation like this before." Given De Goey's form, and Vicenza's sharpness on the counter-attack, it would seem the Dutchman must play beforehand, if not at Derby then at home to Tottenham on 11 April.

And Vicenza. "To be honest, I think we will win," said Zola. Chelsea will have to play better to do so.