Football: Chelsea drawing promise from youth

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CHELSEA have got more kids than Barnardos, which just goes to show that you can ask boys to do men's work. Temporarily.

Young players, however good, invariably hit a wall after first strutting their stuff, and need a break before coming again. The knack is knowing when to rest them; the need to do so the reason Terry Venables is promoting a separate Under-21 section for the Premier League.

Chelsea's brood, thrust into the fray because Clarke, Elliott, Spackman and Cascarino all lost form or fitness, have contributed handsomely to the barnstorming run - nine wins and three draws in the last 13 games - which has hoisted an evolving team into fifth place in the table.

Sinclair and Stuart, Le Saux and Newton are all doing man's size jobs, and doing them well, but with the grounds, and the burden of expectation, getting heavier, the old hands are going to be needed before much longer.

For the moment, change is unnecessary. The Chelsea bandwagon has been a trumpet short of a full combo these last 20 years, but they are making a decent fist of 'Happy days are here again', with the tenure of Stamford Bridge finally secure and the old ground packed to the rafters, with thousands locked out, for Manchester United's visit on Saturday.

The atmosphere crackled; the game snored. Sod's Law ruled again, and a match which had promised so much held all the excitement of a box of Christmas hankies. It was about as parsimonious, too - one goal attempt apiece for 1-1.

Ian Porterfield, the Chelsea manager, could moonlight as the man with the X-ray eyes after spotting 'encouraging signs and a lot of plusses'. United's Alex Ferguson was much nearer the mark with: 'No one played well. It was just one of those days.'

In fairness to Porterfield, Chelsea made all the running, United paying them the compliment of defending in depth, and deploying an extra midfield workhorse, Mike Phelan, to counter Andy Townsend's strength and driving aggression.

Having overpowered the likes of Everton, Tottenham, Crystal Palace and Coventry in recent weeks, Chelsea were keen to measure themselves against the best, which is how Porterfield and most of his players regard the perennial nearly men. They measured up well, as Ferguson acknowledged. 'They took the game to us, and all credit to them for that.'

United were much relieved by the absence, for all but the last 24 minutes, of Mick Harford, Chelsea's leading scorer, who had told Porterfield before the game that his troublesome calf would allow him no more than half an hour. As soon as he arrived, substituting for Robert Fleck, his aerial menace won the free-kick which produced the opening goal.

Ferguson was grateful that the towering totem was not on longer to profit from the crosses which caused Peter Schmeichel occasional embarrassment. 'Chelsea are not bad, you know,' the United manager said. 'They're flying at the moment, and I think they've got the quality to stay involved at the top.'

Quality is not a word which sprang readily to mind after a scrappy stalemate, but there were some nice cameos in what was very much B movie stuff.

Both goals were gems, worthy of a much brighter setting. Eric Cantona's first as a United player was one to savour, the Frenchman receiving Phelan's headed knock down with his back to the target, and spinning with stunning dexterity before shooting past Kevin Hitchcock from eight yards.

The bristling daisy-cutter with which David Lee had given Chelsea the lead was also from the top drawer, beating Schmeichel from some 20 yards further out.

Lee epitomises his team's unexpected emergence as title contenders. At the start of the season he was well behind Paul Elliott and Mal Donaghy in the queue for places in central defence, apparently so far out of favour that he refused a new contract. When Elliott's knee injury let him in, his start was hardly auspicious - a 3-2 defeat at home to Norwich - but his improvement since, and uncommon composure on the ball, hint at a future beyond club football.

If Lee and Cantona were good enough to illuminate a drab afternoon with their goals and distributive skills, the man of the match was Chelsea's own enfant terrible, Dennis Wise. With Graham Stuart and Graeme le Saux playing wide, the spitfire winger has a new role these days, as Townsend's accomplice in central midfield, and his tireless ferreting for possession, and intelligent prompting with it, suggest he may have found a permanent niche.

Deprived by injury of Bryan Robson and Ryan Giggs, United had neither the power nor the wit to subdue him. Theirs was a strangely muted display, with Mark Hughes and Lee Sharpe failing to produce a single shot or header between them. Thank heaven for the boy 'Ooh-aah'.

Ferguson approached the game in safety-first mode, and got what he came for. A point. 'I wasn't happy with the performance, but I was happy with the result,' he said. 'There are times when you have to churn out results and keep pegging away.'

Unfortunately for the biggest crowd of the day (34,464), the game pegged out while United churned.

Goals: Lee (68) 1-0; Cantona (71) 1-1.

Chelsea: Hitchcock; Hall, Sinclair, Townsend, Lee, Donaghy, Stuart, Fleck (Harford 66), Le Saux, Newton, Wise. Substitutes not used: Burley, Colgan (gk).

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Phelan (Kanchelskis 85), Pallister, Cantona, Ince, McClair, Hughes, Sharpe. Substitutes not used: Digby (gk), Blackmore.

Referee: R Lewis (Great Bookham).