Football: Charlton offer no shocks for Hitchcock

Charlton Athletic 0 Chelsea 1

THE APPEARANCE of Kevin Hitchcock in the Chelsea goal for the start of the second half should have seen an immediate rise in tension in the visitors' penalty area, not just because he shares his name with the master of suspense, Alfred, but because he was making his first start of the season, in place of a flu-stricken Ed De Goey.

Yet that Hitchcock was not tested once by Charlton's forwards spoke volumes for Chelsea's defence as they hung on to Roberto Di Matteo's first-half goal and kept their first clean sheet in a League match for two months.

With eight games remaining and despite the protests to the contrary of their manager, Gianluca Vialli, Chelsea remain in the title hunt. The win here combined with Arsenal and the leaders, Manchester United, both drawing their games meant the third-placed Blues cut the deficit to five points and, if they win their game in hand, that gap can be reduced to just two points.

Vialli just about conceded that if that does happen, then Chelsea would be in with a chance of their first championship since 1955, but he made it clear it was a very big "if". For the time being he is happy to let the top two slug it out. He said: "The two teams above us are more experienced and won't throw it away. This is not a psychological game. They are in front of us and not by chance."

Protecting Hitchcock was the tried-and-trusted back four, but Vialli singled out Marcel Desailly for special praise in the light of having played two internationals for France in the previous week. The World Cup-winning duo of he and Franck Leboeuf were operating at full strength, blocking out all the daylight between Charlton's attack and any sight of Hitchcock's goal. The defence's form in particular bodes well for Chelsea's European Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final, first leg against Real Mallorca on Thursday.

While the central pair did their part, it was right-back Albert Ferrer who helped set up the 11th-minute goal with a cross into the area that the Charlton goalkeeper, Sasa Ilic, failed to collect and defender Carl Tiler failed to head properly. Di Matteo met the loose ball with a downward volley that was enough to beat a stranded Ilic.

It is a lack of goals from his own side that most concerns Charlton's manager, Alan Curbishley, and he stated: "We've got to win games and to do that we've got to score goals."

And as if to highlight the way things are going for Charlton, Curbishley noted: "Ilic makes a howler and they score; their goalkeeper [De Goey] makes a similar mistake and we fail to score. That's happened too many times." With just eight games to get 12 more points and reach the supposed safety mark of 40 points, the suspense for Curbishley's relegation-threatened side looks like lasting to the end of the season.

Goal: Di Matteo (11) 0-1.

Charlton (3-4-3): Ilic; Rufus, Tiler, Brown; Kinsella, Stuart, Powell (Jones, 82), Mills (Barnes, 54); Robinson, Mendonca (Hunt, 78), Pringle. Substitutes not used: Petterson (gk), Bowen.

Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey (Hitchcock, h-t); Desailly, Leboeuf, Le Saux, Ferrer; Wise, Morris (Poyet, 70), Goldbaek, Di Matteo (Duberry, 86); Zola, Flo. Substitutes not used: Lambourde, Nicholls.

Referee: R Harris (Oxford).

Bookings: Charlton: Stuart; Chelsea: Wise, Poyet.

Man of the match: Desailly.

Attendance: 20,046.

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