Football: Ailing Chelsea get the blues

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Chelsea. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2

Manchester City. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .4

NOW Don Howe is happily restored to fitness and football it is Chelsea who have taken to their sickbed and called for the doctor. In his first two games back, Kevin Hitchcock has been beaten seven times, which hardly speaks well of the coach's reputation as one of the best defensive tutors around.

The coincidence is unhappy. Howe's return to health is a welcome shaft of sunlight for his club amid the first grey days of 1993, which have brought a Coca-Cola setback at Crystal Palace and now this: two two-goal defeats, which they had not come across before this season.

City, to give them their due, played well and accepted with considerable aplomb the chances presented to them. Mike Sheron certainly knows the way to goal and it will be some time yet before the crusty Steve McMahon forgets how to upset opponents and referees.

City had to be good but not that special to dismantle a Chelsea defence that is currently an open invitation to prosecute. In doing so, Peter Reid's team confirmed the trend of the Premier League's middle classes. Take away the leading three and everyone is capable of beating everyone else.

Before Christmas Chelsea could win at will. Then they were the beneficiaries of the exuberance and charm of youth, now they suffer for it.

David Lee and Frank Sinclair are fine players in the making - Lee has a quality and composure on the ball that few other central defenders can match while Sinclair has the speed and spring to make the most and more of his 5ft 8in - but they are making mistakes and the well of confidence is drying up.

After Lee's clumsy challenge, Niall Quinn seized the opportunity for a quick free-kick which Sinclair should have cut out. David White got there first, however: 1-0 to City. The ball was rolling and soon out of Chelsea's control.

Soon after Sheron combined with White to score with his customary economy. The third summed up Chelsea's afternoon, Steve Clarke nudging Terry Phelan's cross over the unfortunate Hitchcock, who must now be feeling the breath of the Russian, Dmitri Kharin, down his neck.

Two meaty Chelsea strikes woke up The Shed and prodded the visitors into reasserting their supremacy, Sheron heading for goal after Mal Donaghy and Sinclair obligingly made room for him.

'It's been a disappointing week,' the Chelsea manager, Ian Porterfield, said. 'It's a crucial time of the season and we have let ourselves down because we are not defending well.'

Chelsea must ensure that Wednesday's return to the North-east for the postponed FA Cup tie with Middlesbrough is not another wasted opportunity, or their season will effectively be over. They will have only a high League place to strive for, but no hope of winning anything. City are in a similar boat with a potentially awkward replay at Second Division Reading, though it is difficult to foresee any problems if they are in the mood.

Goals: White (27) 0-1; Sheron (30) 0-2; Clarke og (54) 0-3; Stuart (78) 1-3; Spencer (84) 2-3; Sheron (88) 2-4.

Chelsea: Hitchcock; Clarke (Spencer, 62), Sinclair, Townsend, Lee, Donaghy, Stuart, Fleck, Harford, Newton, Le Saux. Substitutes not used: Burley, Colgan (gk).

Manchester City: Coton; Ranson, Phelan, McMahon, Curle, D Brightwell, White, Sheron, Quinn, Flitcroft, Holden. Substitutes not used: Reid, Mike, Margetson (gk).

Referee: V Callow (Solihull).