Football: Chelsea seek old rhythm to skip blues

Chelsea 1 Southampton 0
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The Independent Online
THEY TOOK their time giving out the scores from other grounds at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, which was probably a good idea. When your heroes have just struggled to a 1-0 home win over Southampton you do not really want to hear that Manchester United have scored eight at Nottingham Forest and Arsenal four at West Ham. It could not have been cheering news for the Chelsea players either.

Graham Rix, Chelsea's assistant manager, deputising for Gianluca Vialli in the press conference, would not be drawn on their reaction. Again, probably the right decision.

Chelsea are not playing well and they know it. They are, however, winning more often than not and they are trying to draw comfort from that as they attempt to restore their flagging confidence.

When a team is seeking to play the football Chelsea aspire to, confidence is crucial. Without it, players hesitate where once they played by instinct, err on the side of caution where once they sought adventure. Defenders hoof the ball away instead of passing it, midfielders sit deeper and are less visible when a team-mate is looking to pass, forwards snatch at chances.

While Chelsea have lost their fluency and their passing is laboured they are not yet shirking responsibility. "There are two types of courage," Rix added. "One is about putting your foot in and making the tackle. The other is where you put your head up and play. We need that at the moment.

"Direct football does not ask too many questions of players but the way we play does. If things are not happening off the cuff, if it is not flowing as usual, doubt sets in.

"We have lost a bit of confidence and are not playing as well as we can but we are delighted to grind out a result. The Chelsea of three or four years ago would not have done that. It's a clean sheet and three points. You have to look at the positives."

The negative would appear to be the absence of Gustavo Poyet, the Uruguayan who was making such an impact when he suffered a bad injury in a tackle by Southampton's Patrick Colleter in the first match between these sides on Boxing Day. Though they have only lost once since then - to Arsenal - Chelsea have rarely played well. "We have missed him," Rix said. "He is a key player for us, influential in the middle of the park and both boxes. He's a clever player and he scores goals."

Poyet remains Chelsea's top scorer, although the honour is now shared with Gianfranco Zola. The Italian's free-kick, steered over the stooping Mikael Forssell as he broke the wall, was his 11th goal of the campaign.

Poyet is unlikely to be back before April and, with Tore Andre Flo, Pierluigi Casiraghi, Michael Duberry, Bernard Lambourde and Albert Ferrer also injured, even Chelsea's impressive squad looked a bit thin on Saturday. As Flo is due back within the fortnight there are no plans, said Rix, to emulate Arsenal and buy more forwards.

Chelsea, who remain second, squeezed between Manchester United and Arsenal, now go to Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup and will shortly face Valerenga of Norway in the European Cup-Winners' Cup. In between are three League games - at home to Blackburn and Liverpool, and away to Nottingham Forest - from which they will probably need to take nine points to keep pace with United and ahead of Arsenal. The squad may need some rotation.

So far this season Chelsea have used 23 players in the League, the same as Manchester United in their last three championship seasons. However, Arsenal required 26 players last year, a figure unmatched by a title-winning side for 50 years. When it is considered that from 1968 to 1984, for a 42-game season, no team used more than 20 players, and Villa, seven years later used only 14, it underlines the growing need for large squads.

This applies to relegation-fighting teams as well but their resources are thinner. This season David Jones, the Southampton manager, has bought 11 players for a total of pounds 5m, leaving him with more than pounds 2m change from the sale of Kevin Davies. The result is a team with a surprising amount of heart and organisation, given the turnover of players and poor season, but little spark. Although they had plenty of possession they rarely threatened to beat a defence in which Franck Lebouef was outstanding and Ed De Goey commanding.

With Forest and Charlton looking in grave danger Southampton effectively need to get above Everton, Coventry and Blackburn to escape relegation. Everton, while grim to watch, have a solid enough defence to pick up draws; Coventry have the goalscoring potential of Darren Huckerby; Blackburn have quality in all areas. The outlook is not good for the Saints.

If there is hope it is in their spirit. "We took the game to them but didn't quite have the end product," Jones said. Chris Marsden, the latest signing at pounds 800,000, showed promise while Jason Dodd had a good game against Zola.

Less edifying was a group of visiting supporters who took the usual abusive "banter" a stage further beyond the pale by glorifying in Poyet's injury. Stewards were noticeable by their absence.

Marsden was also, according to Jones, involved in a curious exchange with the referee, Rob Harris, who was alleged to have said, when booking the midfielder, "You're not in the Endsleigh now." Apart from reflecting badly on Nationwide's marketing - perhaps the building society should concentrate on developing its profile instead of influencing England's choice of coach - it confirmed a long-held suspicion that referees are stricter in the Premiership. "I thought the rules were the same whatever league you play in," said Jones, not unreasonably.

Goal: Zola (11) 1-0.

Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Petrescu, Desailly, Leboeuf, Le Saux; Wise, Di Matteo, Morris, Babayaro (Goldbaek, 76); Zola, Forssell (Nicholls, 61). Substitutes not used: Newton, Terry, Hitchcock (gk).

Southampton (4-3-1-2): Jones; Hiley (Bridges, 61), Dodd, Lundekvam, Colleter; Oakley, Marsden, Kachloul; Hughes (Bradley, 89); Beattie, Ostenstad. Substitutes not used: Howells, Monk, Stensgaard (gk).

Referee: R Harris (Oxford).

Booked: Chelsea: Di Matteo. Southampton: Oakley, Marsden.

Man of the match: Lebouef.

Attendance: 34,920.