Football: Chelsea look to avoid pitfalls of past success

As Gianluca Vialli's team celebrate their European triumph, Phil Shaw still sees room for improvement at Stamford Bridge
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The Independent Online
CHELSEA jetted into the island of Martinique last night with nothing to declare but Gianfranco Zola's genius and a new item of silverware. The Cup-Winners' Cup triumph over VfB Stuttgart in Stockholm stirred blue remembered thrills of when they won the same competition in 1971. The task facing Gianluca Vialli, once his team's Caribbean holiday is over, is to ensure that the similarities end there.

Twenty-seven years ago, following the defeat of Real Madrid in Athens, no one seriously questioned the Chelsea captain's greeting to the crowds who welcomed them back to Fulham Town Hall. "We're the kings of Europe now," Ron Harris exclaimed with all the subtlety which marked his tackling. Within four seasons, they were relegated.

Lest the connection between the two events seem tenuous, it should be noted that the first conspicuous sign of things starting to fall apart came within months of Chelsea's victory in the final. In their first serious defence of the trophy, against the Swedish part-timers at Atvidaberg, they were eliminated on away goals.

Chelsea's failure to build on an exceptional start to the Seventies was a complex affair, involving the construction of a stand they could not afford and a communication breakdown between a cerebral manager, Dave Sexton, and some of his more maverick players.

The events of last February, when Ruud Gullit was unexpectedly sacked by Ken Bates, suggest that the extent to which Vialli is allowed to manage in the manner he chooses may hold the key to avoiding similar strife this time.

Even Bates, the grumpy grey eminence of SW6, cannot quibble with Vialli's record as player-manager, albeit with personnel inherited from Gullit.

Chelsea, having won nothing bar the Second Division title and the Full Members' Cup since the Sexton era, have already added to March's Coca- Cola Cup win over Middlesbrough.

The Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet spoke of an "Engelsk fest" in the Rasunda Stadium. The headline must have referred to Chelsea's 16,000 followers, who pumped up the volume whenever their team appeared to be flagging, for in truth the Anglo-Saxon influence on the pitch was not pronounced.

Neither, happily, was it entirely absent. The captain, Dennis Wise, produced the marvellously incisive pass from which Zola struck his stunning winner within 20 seconds of appearing as a late substitute.

Yet whereas the side led by Harris contained only three players not born in England, the only Englishmen among the 12 involved against Stuttgart were Wise, Michael Duberry and Danny Granville.

It is anomalous, incidentally, that Glenn Hoddle (whose sojourn as Chelsea manager suddenly seems a long time ago) has overlooked the admittedly waspish Wise in his World Cup plans in favour of more prosaic midfield operators.

Wednesday's euphoria would appear to represent a resounding vindication of Chelsea's policy of buying abroad. However, for every foreign recruit that has adapted to the rigours of the domestic slog, like Zola, Frank Leboeuf and Gustavo Poyet, there is another who has not.

Celestine Babayaro, Laurent Charvet and Bernard Lambourde have proved nothing so far other than that Gullit's knowledge of the French scene was inferior to Arsene Wenger's.

As a consequence, the strength available to Vialli has not run sufficiently deep to paper over the cracks whenever match-winners such as Zola have been injured. One of the challenges confronting Vialli must be to prevent Chelsea becoming simply a collection of cup showmen, raising their game in one-off matches but without the resilience to push for the championship.

Gullit would be entitled to point out that his team, rather than Arsenal, carried the main threat to Manchester United at the time of his demise.

The final Premiership table reveals that despite finishing fourth, Chelsea lost no fewer than 15 games, most of the defeats occurring since the change of management.

It may also seem invidious to criticise players who have kept a clean sheet in a major final, especially on a pitch of which many of both sides were transparently suspicious. But there were enough fraught moments in front of Ed De Goey to suggest that the first area which Vialli should address is his defence. The partnership of Leboeuf and Duberry is error- prone, while Steve Clarke, who has been at Stamford Bridge longer than anyone except Bates, has passed his peak.

There is also a case to be made for additions to the strikers' department if Chelsea are to graduate from being pretenders to contenders in the League. Mark Hughes has received a renewed lease of life because of the squad-rotation system introduced by Gullit, but in his 35th year he is understandably most effective when playing in short bursts.

Vialli, too, reaches 34 during the close season and Zola will be 32 by the time Chelsea report back to training. Michael Laudrup, whose transfer from Rangers is in the balance after a dispute between the clubs, could well be the first of many high-profile recruits should the deal go through.

In the meantime, as they reflect on a campaign of great achievement on their beach, Vialli's men also have a trip to Monte Carlo to contemplate. They will contest the European Super Cup against Real Madrid or Juventus on Monaco's ground in August.

Their efforts also had a knock-on effect for Aston Villa, whose once- desperate season has ended in qualification for the Uefa Cup thanks to the London club.

The ripples of Chelsea's satisfaction have even reached Highbury in the form of a positive augury on the eve of the FA Cup final. For it was in that heady spring of '71, when all the main prizes except the European Cup and the Uefa Cup last came to London - as might well happen again this year - that Arsenal won the Double.