Football: Chelsea have the Desailly to win

Chelsea 2 Liverpool 1
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The Independent Online
TWO VASTLY experienced centre-backs, veterans of combat at a rarified level, spent the entire 90 minutes at Stamford Bridge organising, coaxing and clearing virtually every threat to the respective rearguards. Marcel Desailly influenced a vital Chelsea victory from the heart of the action. Phil Thompson, symbolising Liverpool's role in the title race, was outside looking in.

Now working as coach under Gerard Houllier, Thompson cut an animated figure on the touchline. Once he had stopped making phantom headers, the former Liverpool captain must have wondered how the club of Hansen, Lawrenson and Nicol could have ended up without a single defender remotely in Desailly's class.

Franck Leboeuf may have been wearing the armband for Chelsea, but his exit with an ankle injury merely highlighted the leadership provided by his fellow Frenchman. On the day when Aston Villa's collapse confirmed the Premiership stakes as a three-horse race, John Gregory's belief that "strikers win matches but defenders win championships" found a new standard-bearer in Desailly.

The Villa manager's words, uttered when his own back line was looking impregnable, neatly articulated a philosophy to which George Graham, like Brian Clough before him, has long been a subscriber. As an attacker of considerable flair, Gianluca Vialli may seem an unlikely adherent. As an Italian, he is also steeped in a football culture which has elevated defensive efficiency to an art form.

It should not, therefore, come as a great surprise that, in his first full season since replacing Ruud Gullit, Vialli has placed a high priority on making Chelsea harder to score against. They have conceded just 22 goals - second only to Arsenal, 12 less than Liverpool and eight fewer than at the same stage last February.

Tellingly, Chelsea's 27 League fixtures have produced a mere 63 goals for themselves and their opponents, compared with 84 - some 33 per cent more - in Liverpool's games. Such a record is due in large measure to what Vialli called the "winning mentality" of Desailly, yet the player- manager argued that it was simplistic to explain it solely in terms of an individual or even a unit.

"When we talk about defending I don't just talk about the back four, because it all starts with the two strikers," he said. "I'd say we're playing better when the other team have the ball. We try to be tight and aggressive."

The textbook example of forwards working to prevent opponents building from the back is that of Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton during Blackburn's championship season. To see a performer of Gianfranco Zola's skills doing a similar job is impressive proof of Vialli's powers of persuasion.

The Sardinian still found the energy for his creative duties, supplying the cross which led to Phil Babb handling under pressure from Tore Andre Flo and Leboeuf scoring from the spot. A combination of fluid attacking and feeble defending enabled Bjarne Goldbaek to double the advantage.

Chelsea, having survived two scares at 1-0, became so superior that they eased up. Perhaps they were conserving power for their quarter-finals, in the Cup-Winners' Cup against Valerenga on Thursday and the FA Cup at Manchester United on Sunday. Michael Owen punished their wavering concentration, but as purposeful as Liverpool became they did not trouble De Goey again.

In mitigation, Houllier cited the absence of Rigobert Song and Jamie Carragher as well as the loss of Vegard Heggem which forced an early switch to 4-4-2. But he did not beat about the Bridge. "They were better than us. We watched more than we moved. Because of that, the passing was too slow and we gave the ball away.

"We're responding rather than acting, and I don't like that. At half- time I said: `At least take the initiative, show for the ball and play'. We have to build on the attitude of the last 25 minutes. The rest wasn't good enough, but Chelsea played some quality football. Let's admit it."

The Liverpool manager traced his team's poor form to the week of internationals in which England lost to France, saying his players returned short of confidence and sharpness. Maybe so, but if he does not see the need for a radical overhaul of every department bar the strikers, he is deluding himself.

"Pass and move" was once the Anfield mantra; it was even the title of their Wembley song one year. Today's version has to be called "Stand and watch". By contrast, Chelsea were so mobile they often appeared to have more players on their new patchwork quilt of a pitch.

The extent to which the surface adjusts to facilitate their one-touch style will be critical during the run-in; likewise the availability or otherwise of Graham Rix, their coach and tactical controller, who could well be in prison by the time the silverware is handed out.

Manchester United - whose next League game, intriguingly, is at Liverpool - look "unstoppable" according to Vialli. However, having been over the European Cup course with Juventus, he must be hopeful that two games with Internazionale will take more out of the leaders than the Norwegian diversion will out of his own side.

Vialli kept stressing the importance of maintaining Chelsea's "desire". On reflection, he may well have been saying "Desailly".

Goals: Leboeuf pen (8)1-0; Goldbaek (38) 2-0; Owen(78) 2-1.

Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Ferrer, Desailly, Leboeuf (Lambourde, 34), Le Saux (Newton, 83); Petrescu, Di Matteo, Morris, Goldbaek; Zola, Flo (Forssell, 86). Substitutes not used: Nicholls, Hitchcock (gk).

Liverpool (3-5-2): James; Kvarme, Matteo, Babb; Heggem (McManaman, 8), Redknapp, Ince (Ferri, 48), Berger (Riedle, 81), Bjornebye; Owen, Fowler. Substitutes not used: Staunton, Friedel (gk).

Referee: P Durkin (Portland, Dorset).

Bookings: Chelsea: Le Saux. Liverpool: Fowler.

Man of the match: Desailly.

Attendance: 34,822.