Fancy Dan the top man

FA Cup semi-finals: The unsung members of the foreign legion aim for an appearance on the grandest stage
Click to follow
Some you lose, some you win when it comes to overseas signings. At Chelsea, Ruud Gullit looks to be losing the struggle in his frosty relationship with Gianluca Vialli. Comfort for the coach must come in the quietly efficient and sometimes inspired wing-back he inherited from Glenn Hoddle.

Zola, Di Matteo, Vialli, Leboeuf... Chelsea's cosmopolitan contingent are a glamorous gathering in keeping with the club's glitzy reputation. Less so Dan Petrescu, even if he does live just off the New King's Road - "a little less expensive than the old one", he says - though professionals will tell you he is among the best in the world in his position; still an important member of a still-exciting Romanian team, despite their Euro 96 lassitude, as Ireland are likely to find out on 30 April.

The wing-back, a term that grew up around the innovative Denmark team of the 1980s, is the modern utility player, part fish and part fowl as attacking full-back. Many are converted in Britain, though not fully aware of the potential of the position, either too defensive-minded and unadventurous or, as wingers by instinct, positionally naive. Petrescu's background in Romania and experience in Italy and England, make him a model.

"I learnt with Steaua Bucharest as right-back but all Romanian players like to go forward," he says. "We don't have good defenders, they also like to play football. It is why the players who go abroad are midfielders and attackers. For my position this is good. You have to get up the line but all the time be aware behind you. I enjoy this.

"Sometimes if you play against 4-4-2 you have to mark two players so it can be difficult. If you play against the same style as you, you have to make sure you go past your man, to push him back all the time. McAteer at Liverpool I like, also Le Saux, although Blackburn have not played so much with wing-backs. I think David Beckham can also play this position but I don't see too many in England."

In Romania, Petrescu admits, he was a privileged member of a totalitarian society. "I had a good life, I was happy there. My only problem was small. When Ceausescu was killed we had to stay home for a few days." The highlight of his Steaua career came in reaching the 1989 European Cup final, in which they were beaten 4-0 by Milan, Gullit scoring twice. "We were lucky to keep them to four," he says. "But we were not in good shape. Two days before we had a terrible flight in Romania that made us all very edgy. We were lucky to be alive."

Petrescu was fortunate, too, that after Ceausescu there was more access to the West and a move to Genoa followed. While there, he saw his first English game on television, Sheffield Wednesday against Arsenal in the FA Cup final of 1992.

"Yes, it was one reason I signed for Sheffield. At first I liked it there but we didn't get such good results. The manager Trevor Francis decided to go more long ball and he doesn't see me as the right one." He angled for a move and, to the displeasure of Francis's successor David Pleat, finally got one.

"I was lucky Glenn liked my style," says Petrescu of Hoddle's pounds 2m move for him on behalf of Chelsea. It was a transfer delayed, and down-priced, I understand, because a medical revealed that he had one leg shorter than the other. It never did Garrincha much harm, however.

"At Chelsea you see some chances, some goals. It is hard to see them drawing 0-0," he says. "If I was a fan, I would watch Liverpool and us. They say 'play your football, have patience' and I think like this you can win even if sometimes the crowd are booing too many passes."

It is such an intensity that has taken Petrescu aback and why, he believes, other Romanians such as Gica Popescu, Ilie Dumitrescu and Florin Raducioiu have not lasted in England. "It is unbelievable. You play so many games and the referees let so much go. In Italy you train harder but do not play so much. And here when you have the ball someone is always pressing you, playing a fast game."

None more so than Wimbledon, today's opponents in the FA Cup semi-final. "The only team I didn't want to play," he says. "It is the hardest game in England. Perhaps with an Italian referee it would be different. Their manager creates the right atmosphere, I think; they are always very focused.

"They are very dangerous with their throwing and corners but they have good players too. Gayle, Leonhardsen and Ekoku could play for any Premiership team. Maybe their defenders are not so good on the ball but they never let you play. All the time they are near you or behind you. It is always difficult to find space in England but especially against Wimbledon."

Already this season Chelsea's fancy Dans, if not this Dan, have been exposed by Wimbledon's physical presence, notably Franck Leboeuf, who left the field with what his compatriot Clouseau would term a "bermp" to the head. It seemed to confirm the view, strengthened last week in defeats by Arsenal and Coventry City, that physically and mentally Chelsea lack toughness.

"I think it is opposite," says Petrescu. "We are tough enough but the real problem is that we need a bigger squad. We have so many long injuries this season. Now you need 22 good players. Milan try this but then it is difficult to keep players happy when they are on the bench." He has, after all, close experience after the Vialli case.

He himself should be a certainty today for an occasion, if not a match, he relishes, having missed last season's semi-final against Manchester United through suspension. Wembley remains the quest. "I am surprised how important is the Cup in England, not like Romania or Italy. The people love it. Maybe I am not like an English player who dreams his whole life of playing the final, but now I dream it too." Should it happen, there will then be an example to the English of the art of the wing-back with all its nuances.