Football: Chelsea strike out again: Sheffield Wednesday 0 Chelsea 0

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The Independent Online
GIANLUCA VIALLI'S fear that the season which promised everything will ultimately deliver nothing but heartache hardened in its cruel reality yesterday. On just about any other day, a point in the Premiership pot might have been gratefully accepted. However, as Chelsea kiss goodbye to another couple of badly needed points they also waved farewell to what slim championship hopes they had.

Just in case there was any doubt, man of the match Frank Leboeuf held up his hands, and he did not have to brandish a white flag in order to get the message over. The French defender did everything and more to keep his disheartened side on course at Hillsborough, but when it was over saw little point in attempting to disguise the truth. Leboeuf said: "I think we have to say that the title has gone now. If we were going to lift it then we were going to have to win all our remaining five games, starting with this one."

So ends, or so it would seem, Vialli's bid to take the championship back to Stamford Bridge after 44 years of waiting. And he and everyone else knows where the problems lie.

It was the absence of a genuine goalscorer which deprived them in Majorca of a place in the final of the Cup-Winners' Cup. It was the same story here. This time it was Vialli who tried to solve the scoring crisis himself. But while the player-manager manfully battled to deliver the solution, he failed. The fact is that at 34-plus he is no longer the penalty box predator he once was.

He is not even Pierlugi Casiraghi, the player who might have delivered the goals but for a crushing early-season injury. To emphasise how much he, and his type, are missed you only have to look at what happened in this match which enabled Wednesday to fend off the lingering threat of relegation.

The Wednesday goalkeeper Pavel Srnicek was not required to make a solitary save in 90 minutes - and that says it all. As a game of football it was certainly no beauty contest, which will not come as a surprise to Wednesday fans aware that their manager, Danny Wilson, lacks the funds necessary to effect an extensive makeover.

Yet whatever fears there may have been over the Cup-Winners' Cup hangover disadvantaging Chelsea they seemed, initially, without substance. Vialli's future as a player-manager may be the subject of some debate. Yet, in the first half at least, he led his line with the intelligence one would expect from a man who has been around football's most salubrious blocks more times than he cares to remember. And while Srnicek was not called upon in any serious way, his goal was still pounded more regularly than Chelsea's. Wednesday placed heavy reliance on Andy Booth's ability to furnish knockdowns. Twice the young Yorkshireman obliged to set up opportunities for young Irish debutante Mark McKeeber and Danny Sonner. Both were betrayed by indecisive finishing.

The introduction of Gianfranco Zola at the start of the second half was designed to move Chelsea on in the hope that they could eat into Arsenal's four-point advantage over them. However, as furiously as Zola laboured, he was unable to supply the craftsman's finish. So it was that Wednesday, who may make some sort of history by qualifying for Europe via the relegation belt, made their own play for victory, inspired by the wit of Benito Carbone.

Wednesday can now contemplate the prospect of entering next season's Uefa Cup on the strength of finishing top of the Fair Play League.

Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-2): Srnicek; Atherton, Thome, Walker, Stefanobic; Alexandersson, Jonk, Sonner, McKeeber; Booth (Cresswell, 80), Carbone. Substitutes not used: Pressman (gk), Newsome, Cobian, Haslam.

Chelsea (4-4-2): Hitchcock; Ferrer, Leboeuf, Lambourde, Babayaro; Goldbaek, Desailly, Wise, Poyet (Newton, 59); Forssell (Zola, 46), Vialli.

Referee: S Dunn (Bristol). Booked: Wednesday: Booth. Chelsea: Babayaro, Ferrer.

Man of the match: Leboeuf.

Attendance: 21,652.