Chelsea's inconsistent form gives Vialli much to ponder

Chelsea 1 Sheffield Wednesday 1
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The Independent Online
THE HOTEL has been awarded four stars by the AA; the Megastore is coining it as the Christmas rush begins; and Fishnets (which, it transpires, sells seafood, not stockings) is chock-a-block. Fortunately, though frustratingly, what really matters in Chelsea Village is still putting the ball between the white sticks more times than the opposition.

Saturday was a frustrating day, then, for the football team who live there, though one put admirably in context by their occasional player- manager Gianluca Vialli, the perfectionist who understands human frailty.

Many managers in his position (fourth, with the chance to go second) would have been ranting and raving about a failure to dispatch this moderate Sheffield Wednesday side. Vialli, on his own admission, "can't speak English when I get really angry". While a decent proportion of the side would understand Italian ranting rather better, he prefers a tone so softly modulated that, sitting further back than the front row at a press conference, it is difficult to hear a word.

"The result was quite fair," he whispered on Saturday. "The players are a bit disappointed because we lost a good opportunity to improve our position in the table. It's something that happens, especially in England, because the competition's so tight."

Wednesday illustrate that point. Unable to score a goal against the likes of Southampton and Coventry, they have now beaten Arsenal and Manchester United, and drawn at Stamford Bridge on another afternoon that confounded expectation from the start.

Vialli began it by naming an unchanged team for the only time since his opening two matches in charge last February. As if that was not enough of a shock, Andy Booth should have scored for the visitors within 20 seconds.

Then Wednesday's Tango Man, naked to the waist as ever, had just begun a chant of "By far the greatest team the world has ever seen" when Pavel Srnicek obligingly tipped a cross from Celestine Babayaro on to Gianfranco Zola's head for the opening goal. Later, as another Yorkshire foghorn was urging the Wednesday manager "Sell Booth, Wilson, do your job," the striker in question smartly beat Ed de Goey to Niclas Alexandersson's low cross to equalise.

Dominant for an hour, Chelsea had lost their way and might have conceded a penalty when Marcel Desailly handled. Only Zola remained a threat, far more so than his partner Tore Andre Flo, who did not enhance his case for a regular place with this display. It is inconceivable that Vialli will keep an unchanged side very often during December, a month in which, the foreign players might have been led to believe, English football slackens off a little before the hectic holiday period. Well, just the eight games this month, chaps, starting with Wimbledon in the Worthington Cup tomorrow, then Aston Villa, Manchester United (twice) and Tottenham, among others.

Despite setting a club record with 19 unbeaten matches, Chelsea have stayed "in the shade", as Vialli put it, partly because Villa have been enjoying a place in the sun. The immminence of re-arranged midweek matches against the leaders and then United will change all that, and possibly change the shape of things at the top of the table as well. It will be difficult for the Village People to remain low-profile much longer.

Goals: Zola (25) 1-0; Booth (67) 1-1.

Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Ferrer, Leboeuf, Desailly, Le Saux; Goldbaek (Petrescu, 77), Di Matteo (Morris, 77), Poyet, Babayaro; Flo, Zola. Substitutes not used: Duberry, Nicholls, Hitchcock (gk).

Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-1-1): Srnicek; Atherton, Thome, Walker, Hinchcliffe; Alexandersson, Sonner (Magilton, 86), Jonk, Rudi; Carbone; Booth (Humphreys, 89). Substitutes not used: Briscoe, Stefanovic, Clarke (gk).

Referee: N Barry (Scunthorpe).

Bookings: Chelsea: Leboeuf, Desailly. Sheffield Wednesday: Sonner, Booth.

Man of the match: Zola.

Attendance: 34,451.