Football: Chelsea at home with the top spot

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The Independent Online
THE LAST time Chelsea topped the League, in November 1989, the team included Kevin Wilson, Alan Dickens, Ken Monkou, Dave Beasant and David Lee. John Bumstead was the regular substitute. Few took their challenge seriously and the doubters were quickly justified as Chelsea took two points from the next five games, conceding 16 goals in the process.

The Chelsea team that reached the Premiership's apex with a 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge on Saturday included Gianfranco Zola, Franck Leboeuf, Gianluca Vialli, Gus Poyet and Dan Petrescu. Tore Andre Flo was on the bench. This time the challenge is being taken very seriously indeed.

Listen to the experts, and not just the bookies who have marked them down as fav-ourites. George Graham, thrice a championship winner - once as a player, twice as a manager - confirmed: "They have the credentials to stay there. They have a lot of talent but that's been there for a couple of years. This year they have consistency and they can handle the physical side of it. The squad is formidable and they are more together as a unit."

That said, Graham felt his Tottenham side would have taken a point had it not been for the dismissal of Chris Armstrong an hour into a fractious match. He may be right, and they resisted stoutly with 10, but it is through winning such matches that championships are claimed.

As Graham said, it is not just that the players who, with due respect to Ted Drake's champions of 1954-55, are probably the best squad in Chelsea's history, it is their attitude. In the past talented Chelsea sides have been fragile under pressure, either buckling in the face of a physical challenge or, more recently, losing their heads and kicking out. Not this team (though the absence of both Dennis Wise and Graeme Le Saux may have helped).

They competed physically with Spurs and stayed cool mentally, continuing to play patient football even after 20 fruitless minutes attacking Spurs' 10 men.

As important as turning draws into wins is their success this year in turning defeats into draws - as illustrated at Old Trafford in midweek. Having lost far too many matches last season they remain unbeaten this, ever since that opening day defeat at Coventry.

This is in part due to the fitness programme instituted by Vialli under the expert eye of Antonio Pintus, his former conditioning coach at Juventus.

"We are better than the opposition in the last 15 minutes because we work really hard in the week," said Vialli. "If you do that you get reward."

Then there is the depth. As well as Wise (suspended) and Le Saux (injured) Chelsea were also missing long-term casualties Pierluigi Casiraghi and Eddie Newton, and the less seriously injured Marcel Desailly and Roberto Di Matteo. And they still had Flo on the bench.

Depth aids consistency, which Graham picked out as the most important ingredient in the championship mix. Experience is similarly crucial: Alex Ferguson is fond of reflecting that a team has to lose a championship before they can win it, as his own Manchester United team and Blackburn found.

This ought not apply to Chelsea. It may be more than 40 years since the championship trophy resided at Stamford Bridge but the players know all about winning titles.

Between them they could put on quite a display of championship medals with Ed de Goey, Albert Ferrer, Celestine Babyaro, Petrescu, Zola, Di Matteo, Vialli, Desailly and Le Saux possessing examples spanning seven countries. Most pertinently three of them have been won in Serie A, and Le Saux did so in England.

As Vialli noted, their knowledge will prove crucial in the coming months: "This gives us all confidence, but teams will play harder against us now so life will be more difficult in the future. But we should be able to cope with it as we have experienced players in the side who are used to staying at the top. I am curious as to how we will react but confident."

Chelsea are generally accepted as the best footballing team in the Premiership and their passing, control and movement can be exceptional. This only occurred in patches on Saturday with several players, notably Vialli and Zola, below par. However, Petrescu, whose physical commitment seems to have increased immensely since his place became uncertain, was in fine form and Poyet as impressive as ever.

As he grows in influence, the Uruguayan could do for Chelsea what Emmanuel Petit did for Arsenal last year. His 80th-minute goal, scored off the post after Vialli had flicked on Babayaro's pass, was his 10th of the season and, said Vialli: "He is the complete midfield player. He is one of the most clever players I have played with.

"He scores goals, his runs are clever, his passes precise, he works very hard for the team and has an unbelievable attitude. He is always positive, a player managers always want in the squad."

Ten minutes later Vialli won possession in midfield and Petrescu was already racing down the right as Leboeuf launched the ball forward. Flo tucked in the Romanian's cross and the blue flag took flight on top of the Premiership. The team then adjourned to Di Matteo's latest restaurant venture.

Aston Villa can budge them from the summit at Charlton tonight but it would be a huge surprise if Chelsea do not regain it between now and May. Goals: Poyet (80) 1-0; Flo (90) 2-0.

Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Ferrer, Duberry, Leboeuf, Lambourde (Goldbaek, 90); Petrescu, Morris, Poyet, Babayaro; Vialli, Zola (Flo, 71). Substitutes not used: Hitchcock (gk), Terry, Nicholls.

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Walker; Carr, Young, Campbell, Sinton (Edinburgh, 74); Fox (Allen, 85), Anderton, Nielsen, Ginola (Clemence, 65); Armstrong, Ferdinand. Substitutes not used: Calderwood, Baardsen (gk).

Referee: G Poll (Tring).

Sending-off: Tottenham: Armstrong. Bookings: Chelsea: Duberry, Babayaro, Vialli. Tottenham: Armstrong, Ferdinand, Carr.

Man of the match: Petrescu.

Attendance: 34,881.