Football: Chelsea's charisma adds some shine

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AS CHELSEA casually sliced Valerenga apart at Stamford Bridge on Thursday night Lazio were doing likewise to Panionios in Athens. Earlier in the day Lokomotiv Moscow had cruised to a 3-0 win against Maccabi Haifa, of Israel. There could be no better argument for Uefa's decision to bring an end to the European Cup-Winners' Cup this May after 39 seasons of sporadic quality and occasional drama.

With Real Mallorca, who drew at Varteks in Croatia, likely to complete the final quartet the semi-finals should produce some decent matches, but it is an awfully late stage for a European competition to actually become competitive.

Though Barcelona, Milan, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Ajax and Juventus are among the past winners, the Cup-Winners' Cup has never been synonymous with quality. Finalists have included an uncommonly high number of clubs from countries such as Austria, the former East Germany and Belgium, none of whom have made much impact on any of the other European competitions.

The early rounds are even weaker: Chelsea have so far played Helsingborg, Copenhagen and Valerenga. In winning the trophy last year they faced Slovan Bratislava, Tromso, Real Betis, Vicenza and VfB Stuttgart. Only one of these sides, Bratislava in the same competition 30 years ago, have ever reached a European final and only Betis and Stuttgart could be regarded as decent opposition, and neither are of the first rank. It is no co-incidence that this is the only trophy won by English clubs (three times) since the post-Heysel ban was lifted. However, Chelsea can only beat what they are faced with and they did that with such ease on Thursday it is inconceivable that they will let slip their three-goal advantage in Oslo in 12 days' time.

Chelsea's attention now turns to Sunday's FA Cup tie against Manchester United at Old Trafford. "The European results mean both sides will be in the right frame of mind," said Gianluca Vialli, who is among four Chelsea players suspended. "United confirmed how strong they were against Inter Milan. They scored with the first two chances they had, so if we want to get a result we will have to be spot on defensively."

Chelsea suffered another unnecessary booking on Thursday when Dan Petrescu was cautioned for showing dissent to a linesman who had signalled a handball against him. Since it was in an innocuous area of the field and Chelsea were two up his reaction was foolish, but Vialli said: "Every match we play, we play for something. Sometimes we get yellow and red cards. It is not ideal but we are human beings, it happens. So far we have been capable of maintaining good performances despite losing players to suspension."

Chelsea could yet win a unique treble, but Vialli remained cautious. "It is difficult, we shall see what happens," he said. Celestine Babayaro, who scored the first goal and made the second against Valerenga, was more bullish: "We want all three, nothing less."