Football: Champions' League - Vialli plots to play the smart card

Alex Hayes hears the Chelsea manager plan an Italian surprise
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CHELSEA'S LONG wait is finally over. After trying unsuccessfully for so long to gain entry to that exclusive club they call the European Cup, their application has finally been accepted. For the fans, players and chairman alike, a place in the lucrative Champions' League is a dream come true; a chance for the club to rub shoulders with the greatest powers of Europe.

Only the manager, Gianluca Vialli, is even remotely remorseful. Having finished third in the Premiership last season, he feels "a bit of a cheat" being allowed to sit at the top table. "It definitely devalues the Champions' League," said Vialli in his near-perfect English at Chelsea's training ground at Harlington. "When I won the Cup in my last match for Juventus in 1996, it had taken us two years to get there. First you had to win the domestic title, then you had to go and win in Europe. It may be more competitive now, but it was special to be champion of Italy and Europe at the same time."

Vialli may be a little embarrassed but, the gatecrashing now done, he has every intention of making the most of the opportunity. Forget how they got there, Chelsea are in the VIP lounge, so they might as well make themselves comfortable. "We are all very excited," said Vialli. "This is a reward for all the hard work we have put in over the last few years."

That hard work will get harder as Chelsea face the Italian champions, Milan, in their opening group match at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. "Milan are one of the most prestigious clubs in Europe," he said. "They've won the Champions' League twice in the Nineties. I've played in Italy, people have seen them play; everybody knows how good they are. It's going to be very tough."

Much in the same way as teams often struggle to make the leap from Nationwide to Premiership football, so too the gulf between domestic and European quality can take time to bridge. The champions, Manchester United, are a case in point. Before finally cracking the Italian nuts of Internazionale and Juventus, as well as triumphing at the Nou Camp against Bayern Munich this year, Sir Alex Ferguson's men had failed to defeat experienced sides in seasons past. Even Arsenal, for all their Gallic mastery and cosmopolitan blend, were unable to make any inroads in Europe last time around.

So are English teams simply too naive? "The difference is that Italian sides can change the way they play depending on their opponents," Vialli said. "So when they are in Italy they play one way and when they're in England they play another way. Wherever they are, they know how to beat the opposition. They've studied their weaknesses and look to exploit them.

"English teams want to be better than the opposition by playing their own brand of football all the time, and that is very admirable. Manchester United won the Champions' League last year because they were the best team in Europe, but sometimes you can win it because you are adaptable or smarter, which is something Italian teams are really good at."

Vialli must have mixed emotions plotting the downfall of an Italian club. Capped 59 times for the Azzurri and long regarded as a future national manager, he is acutely aware of what is at stake on Wednesday. "Yeah," he said, shrugging his shoulders, "it's not the same. There is something special about it. Italian journalists are coming over and they want to talk to me about Chelsea. But that makes me very proud.

"The Italians think it is easier here. As far as they're concerned, their game is more demanding. It doesn't annoy me. I'm not bothered. Nobody knows the situation unless they are in it themselves."

As David Platt discovered earlier this year during his brief stint at Sampdoria, young managers are not particularly welcome in Serie A. But a good result against Milan would put both Vialli and Chelsea on the footballing map. "Yes you can say that. It's not just about the three points. It's about a new adventure and it's about getting known in Italy and Europe. There's more than one thing to play for when you face a team like Milan. But I'm not concerned whether the rest of the world thinks I'm doing well; it's Chelsea that matters."

Whether the club can make an impact in their first year in the tournament is open to question, but they are relatively well equipped. The likes of Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly have both won the Champions' League with two different clubs, while Albert Ferrer (Barcelona) and Graeme Le Saux (Blackburn) have also played in the competition. "We have the potential," accepted Vialli, "but we haven't achieved anything yet. To gain credibility, we need to win the title here before we can talk about anything else."

Vialli may not have the right badges to coach in Italy, but he's shown he is already well equipped in the art of gamesmanship.