Football: Chelsea armed with local knowledge

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THERE were no garlands, no weeping girls, not even a local mayor greeted Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Di Matteo as they returned to their homeland yesterday. Instead just a couple of television cameras and a handful of autograph hunters welcomed the two gentlemen to Verona as they flew in for Chelsea's European Cup-Winners' Cup, semi-final, first leg with Vicenza tonight.

Maybe that was just as well as Vialli's stylish image might not have survived the damage caused by his jarring juxtaposition of de rigueur sunglasses and baseball cap with a naff nylon Autoglass puffa jacket. Nor would some of the Serie A movers and shakers have welcomed his opinion of them.

The men who ran Italian football, ventured Vialli, made a manager's life impossible. "In Italy they don't give you any time," he said. "If a manager loses the first three matches of the season he is sacked. The chairmen put a fortune into football and expect to see results straight away. They do not have any patience and a manager is always under pressure."

Vialli cited the example of Arrigo Sacchi, who survived a bad start to make Milan the best club in Europe, to show the value of patience but he could have equally mentioned his opponent tonight. After seven jobs in seven years Francesco Guidolin is set to complete four seasons with Vicenza, a rare achievement. In that time he has taken Vicenza from a mid-ranking Serie B team to a Serie A club which even had the temerity to lead the table two seasons ago for the first time in their 96-year history.

Guidolin, who cycles thousands of kilometres a season to relax and ponder his management decisions, is now expected to get on his bike by choice at the end of the season, possibly to Udinese. This, however, is unlikely to weaken the resolve of a team described by Di Matteo as "the Italian Wimbledon".

"I have played against them and their manager's teams," Vialli said. "They do not have any superstars but they work very hard and are very organised. It is going to be very hard, very tight. I know Italian football. They are the best in the world for organisation and preparation. They are still the best in Europe and if we can beat an Italian team it shows we are ready to do something in Europe."

The third member of the Italian Azzurri, Gianfranco Zola, was not with the party having flown to Bologna for treatment on a groin injury earlier in the week. Vialli said he was fit and he trained with the team last night but doubts still remain.

Graeme Le Saux is fit after recovering from Sunday's Coca-Cola Cup final win over Middlesbrough. It was his first game back after an ankle injury and he said: "It has taken me two days to recover, the longest it's ever taken me to do so. After not playing for four weeks, to then play 120 minutes in a cup final was draining, emotionally as much as physically.

"You do recover quicker when you win and while we didn't have a chance to really celebrate - there was no champagne before or after the game - we did go back to club and had a meal with our families."

As against Real Betis in the last round Chelsea will be looking for away goals. "There has been a change of emphasis," said Graham Rix, the coach. "Nil-nil is no good. You have to keep it tight but you need an away goal as a lot of British teams have found out. You might think your own place is a fortress but how are you going to approach the second game after a nil-nil? If you go out willy-nilly and leave it open at the back you might concede one. Then you're chasing the game which is the last thing you want."

Tore Andre Flo is more likely to play than Mark Hughes but Vialli's main decision, if Zola is fit, is whether to play himself. Vicenza, whose controversial weekend defeat to Internazionale (won with a 95th-minute Ronaldo penalty) left them four points above the relegation zone, are at full strength.

The club has three Uruguayans but no famous names. The main danger, Pasquale Luiso, who scored against previous opponents Legia Warsaw, Shaktar Donetsk and Roda JC, is a shadow of his noted Vicenza predecessors, Paolo Rossi and Roberto Baggio.

The 34-year-old playmaker Domenico Di Carlo, like Fabio Viviani a veteran of Vicenza's Serie C days, will need to be nullified but Chelsea have the quality to return with a result.

Chelsea (possible): De Goey; Sinclair, Duberry, Leboeuf, Le Saux; Petrescu, Wise, Di Matteo, Newton; Vialli/Zola/Flo.

Vicenza (possible): Brivio; Mendez, Belotti, Dicara, Coco; Schenardi, Di Carlo, Viviani, Ambrosetti; Luiso, Di Napoli.