Football: Chelsea squander golden chance

Chelsea 0 Manchester United 0

LIKE TWO duelling prize-fighters, the title heavyweights slugged out their second stalemate in a fortnight last night, enabling the perceived bantamweights, Aston Villa, to lead the Premiership into 1999.

As at Old Trafford, where the score was 1-1, Chelsea played the better football but also had the greater fortune. Two weeks ago Bernard Lambourde should have been sent off with the score still 1-0 to United. Last night Franck Leboeuf should have been dismissed when, with 10 minutes left, he brought down a breaking David Beckham. Referee Mike Riley, who had given the Chelsea defender a yellow card 15 minutes earlier, failed to award a second. "I think I deserved a red card," Leboeuf admitted afterwards. His manager, Gianluca Vialli, assented.

Perhaps Chelsea will now ask Riley to view the match video, change his decision, and inflict a suspension on Leboeuf. Perhaps not; managers can be as inconsistent as referees when it comes to disciplinary matters.

United's manager, Alex Ferguson, also felt Leboeuf should have gone, not that he made a fuss about it. He did express concern at refereeing inconsistency, with Monday's four Premiership dismissals making Leboeuf's escape all the more baffling.

As usual it was the players, not the referee, who made the majority of errors, with two of the Premiership's best forwards, Gianfranco Zola and Tore Andre Flo, most at fault. They sliced United's defence apart with their movement in the first half but missed 11 chances between them. Flo spurned seven and missed another just after the break for good measure. Zola, who was otherwise bewitching, lost the mental battle in three successive one-on-ones with Peter Schmeichel.

The Danish keeper, given a vote of confidence by Ferguson before the match, responded with a command performance. His handling was secure, his decision-making sure and his anticipation sharp. It was hard to reconcile this imposing bulwark with the nervy figure of late autumn.

Schmeichel's form will have cheered Ferguson but there was little else for him to enjoy in a one-sided opening period. With Roberto Di Matteo and Jody Morris overrunning an unusually pliant Roy Keane and Nicky Butt, Chelsea were vibrant in everything except their finishing.

Their year was ending as it had begun, with a home match against Manchester United, but there the resemblance ended. Four days into 1998 their dreams had been exposed as delusions as United romped into a 5-0 lead in an FA Cup third-round tie. Chelsea may have pulled back to 5-3 but they never recovered their swagger. Within six weeks Ruud Gullit had gone and, though there was success in other cups, they ebbed to sixth in the Premiership.

Now they have a more consistent look and the confidence engendered by an 18-match unbeaten League run was quickly apparent, with Zola shooting over in the opening seconds. Then Flo's misses began - not one of his efforts was even on target. After 12 minutes he headed over from Zola's cross, in the 18th minute he was too slow reacting to Dan Petrescu's pass, after 21 minutes a Zola shot cannoned back to him off Schmeichel and he could only steer it wide. Zola, meanwhile, wasted an opportunity gifted him by an errant Keane pass.

And what of United, whose own season fell apart after that 5-3 romp? They were not completely idle. Andy Cole, played onside by Leboeuf after 22 minutes, rounded Ed De Goey but went too wide and Michael Duberry cleared off the line. There were also two Beckham free-kicks, one blocked, the other headed into De Goey's arms by Paul Scholes. For the most part however, they were chasing blue shadows, outpassed in midfield, outnumbered in attack, and hanging on at the back. Only Schmeichel went into the break with credit.

The second half opened with the same script, even the name was the same as Flo shot wide after 48 minutes. By way of variation Duberry then headed past the post before United hauled themselves back into the game. With Teddy Sheringham on for the jaded Scholes they finally exerted sustained pressure, but found this Chelsea more resilient than in previous seasons.

Then came Leboeuf's escape and United's ire would have been multiplied had not Schmeichel, a minute later, made a fine save from Zola as he ran on to Petrescu's pass.

That would have given Chelsea all three points; instead they had to settle for one. Whether they, or United, will come to regard this as a point gained rather than two lost, may not be apparent until May.

Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Ferrer, Duberry, Leboeuf, Le Saux (Goldbaek, 88); Petrescu, Di Matteo, Morris (Desailly, 73), Babayaro; Zola, Flo. Substitutes not used: , Nicholls, Forsell, Hitchcock (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, Stam, Johnsen, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Butt, Giggs; Scholes (Sheringham, 60); Cole. Substitutes not used: P Neville, Berg, Blomqvist, van der Gouw (gk).

Referee: M Riley (Leeds).

Richard Williams,

Reports & results, page 18

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