Football: Chelsea reveal title frailty

Leicester City 2 Chelsea 2
Click to follow
The Independent Online
CHELSEA'S RELIEF on retrieving a point in stoppage time, courtesy of defending that was as flawed as the referee's timekeeping, masked the reality of a performance which slipped below the standards required of would-be champions.

Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger do not often see eye to eye but they agree that a team with aspirations to finish top can afford to lose no more than four of their 38 fixtures. Chelsea suffered only three defeats last season - the same number as Manchester United and one less than Arsenal - yet their 15 draws was the joint largest number in the Premiership. Despite avoiding a morale-sapping setback against Leicester, the match did nothing to dispel the impression that Gianluca Vialli's side may still struggle to turn stalemates into successes.

Tim Flowers, the goalkeeper Martin O'Neill has shrewdly rescued from Blackburn's reserves, was considerably busier than Ed de Goey, making a series of accomplished saves without quite being asked to defy gravity. That he was finally undone by another bizarre aberration from the previously steadfast Frank Sinclair, who headed into the wrong net exactly as he had done at Arsenal, said something about Chelsea's problems of penetration as well as about their admirable persistence.

Churlish as such criticism may appear, given that they began with a four- goal salvo against Sunderland, Vialli will be aware that it is victories at venues like Filbert Street that separate the contenders from the pretenders. Leicester gleaned only 27 of the 57 points available there in '98-99, so it scarcely qualifies as a fortress. True, they take a Wimbledon-like delight in embarrassing their supposed superiors with hard work and togetherness, but Chelsea's vast transfer outlay should theoretically have widened the quality gap to the extent that such factors no longer apply.

On the bench, for instance, Vialli had a striker who cost only marginally less than O'Neill's entire team. Chris Sutton, another refugee from Blackburn, did not share his thoughts on being dropped (rotated?) after playing just twice since arriving for pounds 10m. When he came on, however, Sutton's high- rise partnership with Tore Andre Flo left Chelsea looking like just another long-ball team and deprived them of the cunning link play of Gianfranco Zola.

Since they were already without Roberto Di Matteo and Didier Deschamps, the switch left Chelsea bereft of ground-level subtlety. Even so, they were comfortably worth the parity which Dennis Wise's header early in the second half, cancelling out an opportunist strike by Emile Heskey during Leicester's impressive opening burst, had earned them.

Then, in the final seconds of normal time, Albert Ferrer fouled Heskey and Muzzy Izzet scored from the spot against his former employers. Leicester, whose two goals in the last eight minutes at Stamford Bridge in April had secured another 2-2 draw and deflated Chelsea's championship ambitions, had only a minute to hang on according to the fourth official's board.

Around two and a half minutes later - and some 30 seconds before the final whistle belatedly sounded - a Chelsea throw-in found Bjarne Goldbaek in space on their left flank. Leicester's real negligence lay in not stopping the cross at source. Once the Dane had been allowed to deliver, Sinclair committed the more transparent offence of obliging the club who offloaded him last year with another hapless header.

"It was just one of those things," he said later with a philosophical shrug. Sadly for Sinclair, it is now two of those things. Perhaps the distinguished radio commentator who contrived to turn Frank Sinclair and John Spencer into a single character called Frank Spencer when covering Chelsea a few years ago was right all along.

Yet the biggest "woopsy" was perpetrated by Stephen Lodge and his stopwatch. Both managers found fault in his officiating, O'Neill's careful choice of words betraying his background in law: "Let's just say he's a better referee than he showed today."

Chelsea must trust that the same holds true of their own display. Leicester, for whom Neil Lennon was equal to any of his expensive adversaries, are left to reflect that had it not been for Sinclair's Dwight Yorke impersonation, they would be sharing the leadership with Manchester United and Arsenal today.

Goals: Heskey (9) 1-0; Wise (48) 1-1; Izzet pen (90) 2-1; Sinclair og (90) 2-2.

Leicester City (3-5-2): Flowers; Sinclair, Elliott, Taggart (Gilchrist, 85); Impey, Savage, Lennon, Izzet, Guppy; Heskey, Cottee (Marshall, 71). Substitutes not used: Oakes, Zagorakis, Arphexad (gk).

Chelsea ((4-4-2): De Goey; Ferrer, Hogh, Leboeuf, Le Saux (Goldbaek, 22); Petrescu, Wise, Poyet, Babayaro; Zola (Sutton, 68), Flo. Substitutes not used: Nicholls, Percassi, Cudicini (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).

Bookings: Leicester: Lennon, Elliott. Chelsea: Wise, Petrescu, Poyet, Babayaro, Ferrer.

Man of the match: Lennon.

Attendance: 21,068.