Football: Chelsea 4 Sunderland 0 - Chelsea jigsaw comes together

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The Independent Online
AS GIANFRANCO Zola eased his black Range Rover up the Fulham Road an hour after the end of Saturday's game, the lads standing in the sunshine outside All Bar One gave an affectionate cheer for the little Sardinian who had just proved that, at 33, his qualities retain every bit of their potency in the context of the Premiership. He had scored a typically cool goal, made another with a marvellously impish piece of skill, and created numerous other openings. These are things he might have done at any time since his arrival at Stamford Bridge almost three years ago, but now the context has changed and alongside Zola are two players whose contributions make the popular prediction of Chelsea's first championship victory since 1955 seem more realistic.

The first of them is Gustavo Poyet. Two years after his arrival at Stamford Bridge, most people still don't know how to pronounce his surname. But the Uruguayan's abilities are so remarkable that the injuries which wrecked his first two seasons in England may reasonably be thought to have denied his club a major honour or two. If he can steer clear of harm for the next nine months, Poyet could have a significant influence on the destiny of the title. Always alert, constantly available, using anticipation to overcome his lack of sheer pace, he is the motor of this Chelsea team, and on Saturday he was rewarded with a pair of goals that summed up his contribution to the team.

The first, which opened the scoring in the 21st minute, was delivered with an unmarked header from Dennis Wise's left-wing corner-kick, a text- book example of the late run from midfield. As Thomas Sorensen, Sunderland's Danish goalkeeper, rushed out, Poyet held his nerve to meet the dipping ball. Almost an hour later, with Chelsea three up and the ground en fete, Poyet administered the final blow, running on to Zola's exquisite short- range chip, adjusting his feet in mid-air while the ball seemed to hang between Steve Bould and Michael Gray,and dispatching it with a crashing volley from 10 yards.

That move had been set up by a perceptive long pass to Zola from Didier Deschamps, whose Chelsea debut was convincing enough to mean France's captain may turn out to be the final piece in Gianluca Vialli's expensive jigsaw. Patrolling the space in front of his international colleagues, Marcel Desailly and Franck Leboeuf, in the first half, Deschamps performed his customary duties of interdiction and distribution with unfussy expertise. But as Sunderland's poverty of expression became apparent, he was able to show us another side of his game, sidestepping opponents with a elegant flourish and, in the second half, positioning himself 10 yards further forward in order to exert a more creative influence on Chelsea's patterns.

In the closing minutes of the first half he and Zola both made openings for Chris Sutton, with passes measured to send the debutant clear of a flat rearguard in the inside-right channel. Sutton is 26 years old, has a Premiership winners' medal to show for his stay at Blackburn, and cost Chelsea pounds 10m. But he reacted to these golden opportunities with astonishing diffidence, slowing up and shooting wide from the first pass and falling over the ball as he tried to exploit the second chance.

Afterwards Vialli was all sympathy and diplomacy. "I always had problems when I started with a new club," the Chelsea manger said. "It's too easy otherwise. You go, you score, you become a hero straight away. It's better to work your socks off." And, he added, he judged his strikers by criteria other than the number of goals they scored. "If you go on the pitch just thinking about scoring goals, you forget about the other important things. Chris worked hard for the team and he made space for his team mates. He can do better. He knows that and we know that."

It might also be pointed out that Tore Andre Flo, who replaced Sutton with20 minutes to go, missed two sitters. In between them, however, the Norwegian scored Chelsea's third goal with a 78th-minute header from Dan Petrescu, inaugurating a finale in which the home team ran riot and might have doubled their score.

Not all their opponents will react with the bewilderment shown by Sunderland, who looked as if they swallowed their own publicity and whose midfield badly needs the cohesion that Stefan Schwarz has been bought to provide. But as Zola enjoyed his own little triumphal procession down the sunlit Fulham Road, the lads on the pavement were starting to think about next spring, and a full-scale version.

Goals: Poyet (20) 1-0; Zola (32) 2-0; Flo (77) 3-0; Poyet (78) 4-0.

Chelsea (4-1-3-2): De Goey; Ferrer, Desailly, Leboeuf, Le Saux; Deschamps; Petrescu (Di Matteo, 86), Poyet (Babayaro, 79), Wise; Sutton (Flo, 73), Zola. Substitutes not used: Hogh, Hitchcock (gk).

Sunderland (4-4-2): Sorensen; Makin, Butler, Bould, Gray; Summerbee, Rae, Ball (Fredgaard, 60), Lumsdon (McCann, h-t); Quinn, Phillips. Substitutes not used: Helmer, Dichio, Marriott (gk).

Referee: M Riley (Leeds). Bookings: Chelsea Le Saux. Sunderland: Rae, Makin, Quinn.

Man of the match: Poyet.

Attendance: 34,831.