Football: Chelsea's charge is not enough to overwhelm elan of Milan

Chelsea 0 Milan 0
Click to follow
A RETIREMENT home for Azzurri heroes? A finishing school for Serie A coaches? The Premiership last night demonstrated that, for all its faults, at its peak it can live with the best Italian football has to offer.

What it could not do, at Stamford Bridge, was defeat it. Chelsea dominated Milan, the Italian champions, for long periods, monopolising possession in the first half and, through Gianfranco Zola, providing the individual highlights.

However, Milan showed that Italian clubs are still without peers when it comes to defending and only once, when Zola hit the post, did they look like conceding. Indeed, they hit the bar themselves through Leonardo.

Two records thus remained unaltered. Milan have never won on an English club ground and Chelsea have never lost a home European tie. With Hertha Berlin, who Chelsea visit next week, sharing four goals with Galatasaray in Istanbul, Group H remains wide open.

"It is a good result for us. It is only the first game and there is a long way to go," said Gianluca Vialli, Chelsea's manager. "We played very well in the first half. We showed we can compete with anyone in the Champions' League."

"It is a good result for us too, the way the game went," responded Alberto Zaccheroni, the Milan coach. "Chelsea did more to win the game than Milan."

So, a moral triumph if not an actual one but, let us be honest, it is pushing it a bit to claim it as an English triumph. Even by the standards of London's West End this was a cosmopolitan affair with 15 different nationalities - including the Swedish referee, quite a feat by Uefa to find a genuine neutral - on view at the start. But only one player was English, Dennis Wise being the token Brit following the omission from the starting line-up of Graeme Le Saux and Chris Sutton.

Not that the match was foreign in nature, with Milan the arch exponents of the English-style pressing game. It began at a pace which owed more to a traditional FA Cup-tie than the chessboard geometry of a Continental fixture. The difference was the quality of defending from both sides - Marcel Desailly was outstanding for Chelsea. There were no cheap goals to be scored; opportunities had to be created through skill, not bombardment.

Chances were, therefore, rare, but it was not a defensive match. The days of Italian clubs coming to England and putting 10 men behind the ball appear to be over. Milan, may have been without George Weah (suspended) and Zvonimir Boban (injured) but they still played three up front in an adventurous formation.

Not that the trio saw much possession in the early stages as Zola led Chelsea into the attack. Twice he went close before, after 12 minutes, he took a Wise pass and fed Dan Petrescu with a sublime ball. The Romanian ought to have squared to Tore Andre Flo, but went for goal and steered the ball just wide of the near post.

It was to prove Chelsea's best chance for a long time as Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini and Roberto Ayala defended resolutely and intelligently. Not until just before the break were they nearly undone when Zola, in spellbinding form, created one for Flo with some trickery on the left but the Norwegian headed wide. In the meantime Andriy Shevchenko had twice tested Ed De Goey from range but found the keeper's concentration unimpaired by his lack of action.

While there were moments of beauty, notably when Zola was on the ball, there were also some more physical incidents, usually when someone was trying to force Zola off the ball. Not that this troubled the Sardinian who was relishing the chance to show an Italian audience that his skills remain undimmed.

After 64 minutes, he thought his sleight of foot had finally unlocked Milan. A slick one-two with Petrescu carried him into the box and, despite the presence of several Rossoneri, he steered the ball past Christian Abbiati only for the ball to rebound off the inside of the post, back into the goalkeeper's arms.

Encouraged rather than deflated, Chelsea tried again. A deep cross from Wise was flicked on by Zola. Costacurta, trying to dispossess Flo, returned it to Zola who shot low to the near post, only for Abbiati to touch the ball around the post.

Milan, playing their 200th European match (to Chelsea's 62nd), now appeared to settle for a point. This was misleading for they still carried a sting and, with 10 minutes to go, Leonardo demonstrated its potency striking the bar from 30 yards. Yet it was Chelsea who finished strongly, with Abbiati making good saves from a Wise header and a Petrescu shot.

So, three matches, no goals. The Premiership's three-pronged Champions' League challenge has begun quietly. Yet it remains undefeated and full of hope.

Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Ferrer, Leboeuf (Hogh, 81), Desailly, Babayaro; Petrescu, Wise, Deschamps, Poyet (Le Saux, 79); Flo, Zola (Sutton, 85). Substitutes not used: Morris, Lambourde, Ambrosetti, Cudicini (gk).

Milan (3-4-3): Abbiati; Costacurta, Ayala, Maldini; Helveg, Albertini, Gattuso, Guly; Leonardo (Giunti, 82), Bierhoff, Shevchenko. Substitutes not used: Ganz, De Ascentis, N'Gotty, Sala, Serginho, Rossi (gk).

Referee: A Frisk (Sweden).