COMMENTARY : Flying in face of fashion

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The Independent Online
Chelsea's infatuation with all things Italian went too far last week. Their decision to play Milan at San Siro may have brought them prestige and money but, on Saturday, it cost them points.

By half-time at Stamford Bridge they appeared on course for a notable double scalp: home-and-away victories over Manchester United. By the end they were happy to escape with a 1-1 draw.

"We looked very tired in the second half," Dennis Wise admitted. "It's not an excuse but getting back [from Milan] at 4am [on Thursday] did not help."

Gianfranco Zola added: "We were not able to train during the week because we went to Milan. We were very tired."

The midweek jaunt merely underlined what has long been the case: cut down the official fixtures and clubs will use the spare time to arrange lucrative friendlies. For example, a few weeks ago Liverpool and Rangers went to Ajax for a six-a-side tournament. Liverpool were thrashed while Paul Gascoigne suffered the ankle injury which kept him out of England's World Cup tie with Italy and some Rangers games. Presumably the accountants, chairmen and shareholders were happy.

On Saturday, Zola and Roberto Di Matteo were playing their fourth game in 11 days and it showed. The pair ran the first half but, as at Leicester last Sunday, tired in the second. Still, at several thousand pounds a week each, the money to pay the players' wages has to be found somewhere and Milan is a more appropriate source than most.

After several seasons of suffering from midweek European jaunts themselves, United enjoyed the reversal of exhaustion. True, they had played a far tougher match on Wednesday but, since the battle of Highbury, had been relaxing in Buckinghamshire rather than flying over the Alps.

Not that the second-half comeback was entirely down to Chelsea's lethargy. United, now unbeaten in 15 Premiership matches, showed the resilience of current and putative champions. Once they had sorted their tactics out - cramping Zola's space on the flanks and pushing Ryan Giggs forward to curtail Dan Petrescu's excursions - they took control. Even so, unusually sloppy passing, a lack of midfield imagination and poor finishing meant they needed a moment of genius to gain the point.

That came - again - from David Beckham, whose stunning 68th-minute volley was the latest in his canon of impressive works. It cancelled out an equally dazzling goal from Zola, who left Denis Irwin on his backside, Gary Pallister flat-footed and Peter Schmeichel wrong-footed in scoring after two minutes.

Had Mark Hughes' finishing been as sharp, Zola might have won the game for Chelsea after 10 minutes. But his pass (after a move which began with a handball by Eddie Newton) was wasted by the Welshman. A goal then and even the faith of United's players, manager and fans, none of whom seemed unduly anxious at being behind, would have been tested.

Ronny Johnsen, sure-footed and sharp-eyed, eventually tamed Zola. His reading of the game was evident when he was the only defender to follow a clever move by Zola and Ruud Gullit, who had belatedly come on. Johnsen's pace, and his ability to stand his ground and time a tackle, will be vital when United are faced by Porto's Jardel in nine days' time. Ferguson was, therefore, naturally concerned when, in the closing moments, he crumpled under Steve Clarke's challenge. It looked like a twisted knee but, apparently, is merely bruising, the consequence of Clarke inadvertently treading on him.

It was possibly the only foot Clarke put wrong all afternoon. Like Franck Lebouef, he was outstanding as United, driven on by Roy Keane, rolled towards them. Clarke has learned well from playing alongside Gullit and Lebouef and is a prime example of the benefits of foreign players.

Though interesting, and gilded with moments of magic, the game was never quite as good as had been hoped. That anticipation had seen the Fulham Road lined with touts, with tickets changing hands for more pounds 130.

The demand underlined the basic truth behind The Independent's revelation last week that Chelsea were considering playing such matches at Twickenham next season while the rebuilding of the Bridge continues.

Typically, Ken Bates, the Chelsea chairman, rubbished the claim in his column in the programme on the basis that the club had not been contacted. Since the story came from within the club, there was no need. Whether the proposal is realised is another matter but the sums suggest it will be, if not next season, then eventually.

Chelsea's capacity was just 28,336 on Saturday. Next August, with the West Stand dismantled, it will be a maximum 31,000 even if the Shed End is ready. Twickenham, with safety modifications and fallow seating areas, could attract and hold 60,000 for such a fixture. At pounds 20 a ticket (Chelsea's current price for away fans and non-members) that would bring in an extra pounds 600,000. Even after paying for mass stewarding and policing, providing a sweetener for local residents and a cut for the Rugby Football Union, that would leave a large profit for Chelsea. It makes more sense than preparing to play Manchester United by flying to Milan and back.

Goals: Zola (2) 1-0; Beckham (68) 1-1.

Chelsea (3-5-2): Hitchcock (Grodas, 49); Sinclair, Lebouef, Clarke; Petrescu (Gullit, 74), Wise, Newton, Di Matteo, Minto (E Johnsen, 70); Zola, M Hughes. Substitutes not used: P Hughes, Vialli.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, R Johnsen (May, 90), Pallister, Irwin; McClair, Beckham, Keane, Giggs (Cruyff, 83); Cole, Solskjaer. Substitutes not used: Poborsky, P Neville, Van der Gouw, (gk).

Referee: P Ashby (Worcester).

Booking: Manchester United Keane.

Man of the match: Johnsen.

Attendance: 28,366.

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