Football: Chelsea hubris hands advantage to Hertha

CHAMPIONS' LEAGUE Vialli's strikers falter again as supply line dries up while Scots wait on injured striker
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The Independent Online
THERE IS thin line between confidence and arrogance, and there was a suspicion among observers and opponents that Chelsea, to their cost, had crossed it in the build-up to Tuesday night's Champions' League defeat by Hertha Berlin.

"Maybe they were too confident, perhaps they thought that winning in Berlin would be easy," said Ali Daei, the Iranian striker whose two goals humbled Chelsea in the Group H match.

The way neither Marcel Desailly, in particular, nor Franck Leboeuf deigned to mark Daei before he headed in his first goal suggests the analysis may be true. So did Chelsea's lack or urgency for much of the match.

Once Chelsea went behind the confidence of several of their players appeared to evaporate, yet it was less than a week since they had been hailed for their performance against Milan. Suddenly the passing became hesitant and movement cautious, which are sure signs of a team uncertain of itself.

It was a much-changed team, but perhaps Saturday's defeat at Watford had sowed doubt in their minds. More likely was the realisation that, given their scoring problems, the expected victory already seemed a distant prospect.

Chelsea opened the season with nine goals in eight days against Sunderland, Skonto Riga and Leicester away. They have since scored four goals in seven matches, two from penalties, none from their pounds 20m pool of strikers.

This is not entirely the forwards' fault, though they have all missed chances. The blame should be shared because the midfield, for all its talents, can be infuriating providers. Their emphasis is generally on keeping the ball, usually by passing among themselves, rather than risk losing it with a cross or an attempted through ball. As a result Chelsea play in front of teams rather than get behind them, which makes defending simpler.

"I don't want to knock their players but sometimes they can look `pretty' when the most important thing is to get results and get the job done," said Anthony Sanneh, the American who created Daei's opening goal.

"Before I saw the game with Milan all I heard was how well Chelsea had played - but they didn't score did they? They are dangerous but you have got to put the ball in the net."

Certainly there were times when Chelsea's propensity to over-elaborate made one think that maybe Egil Olsen, with his preference for direct play, does have a point. Wimbledon would never have conceded the second goal - square passes across the defence, risky or not, are banned by Olsen.

His methods would also have been far more appropriate in the closing stages when Desailly, augmenting the attack, experienced the frustration regularly felt by Chris Sutton and Tore Andre Flo when team-mates consider knocking the ball into the penalty area only to play a short pass instead. This forced the Frenchman to check his run and try again to create space to attack the cross when - or if - it came.

Not that crossing opportunities were common. Hertha Berlin's canny manager, Jurgen Rober (remember the name, we are going to hear more of him) had done his homework.

The club from the city of spies had watched Chelsea at length and Rober ensured that their main creative outlets, the wide midfielders Dan Petrescu and Celestine Babayaro, and dangerman Gianfranco Zola were stifled.

"Our wing-backs were important," said Rober, "they stopped their wide players getting behind our defence." One of the wing-backs, Sanneh, added: "I kept Petrescu in front of me and he could not get crosses in."

This forced Chelsea to play through the middle but Zola was closely marked by Andreas Schmidt, with other defenders always quick to support.

"They rely on Zola a lot," added Sanneh, "but every time he gets the ball it is in an area where he has to beat three guys. He's a great player but how many times are you going to do that in a game."

Chelsea now await the arrival at Stamford Bridge of Galatasaray next Tuesday for a match which, said Rober, "they must win."

He added: "Chelsea are strong enough to win but Galatasaray are a good side. They have strong, fast front players like Hakan Suker and, of course, there is [Gheorghe] Hagi.

"It will be difficult now for Chelsea to win through," said Daei. "Maybe they will qualify for the Uefa Cup."

That is the consolation for the team finishing third in their group, which is not what Vialli had in mind last month when his club appeared, by virtue of their second-tier seeding, to have been given a favourable draw.

With Galatasaray reportedly unfortunate to lose to Milan on Tuesday it could, however, prove to be a group in which everybody takes points off each other and qualification is achieved with fewer than 10 points.

Even so, Chelsea certainly cannot afford to lose to the Turks and failure to win would leave them needing a victory in Istanbul or Milan at the very least.

For the moment their attention is back on the Premiership and a difficult trip to the Riverside Stadium to face Middlesbrough on Saturday. At least, for all Bryan Robson's exotic purchases, they will not find themselves facing an Iranian.