Football: Desailly desire will lift Chelsea

Click to follow
"DO YOU still get nervous on these big occasions?" someone asked Marcel Desailly. It was a fair enough question, given the quality of the strikers he will be facing against Milan tonight. Judging by the look on Desailly's face one might just as well have asked Mike Tyson, at the height of his powers, if he was nervous about facing Frank Bruno. A more nerveless man than the World Cup, two-time European Cup and multiple Serie A championship winner, it is hard to imagine.

Seated before the press yesterday, his arms folded in majestic fashion, Desailly looked every bit as fearless off the pitch as on it. But nice with it. One sensed it had nothing to do with language difficulties, when he had to ask for the question to be repeated. "No, not any more," he replied, almost matter of fact. "Concentrated, but nervous? No. I like the pressure, of course, but I have enough experience to channel the pressure in a positive way, to make me at my best. When you're young the pressure maybe makes you lose concentration."

That last remark could have been aimed at Milan's new pounds 18m striker, Andriy Shevchenko. No one knows better about the pressures of playing for Milan, not that he ever seemed affected by them. "I'm sure he is going to show he can play in the Italian championship, which is really difficult, and at AC Milan, where there are a lot of big players."

Desailly, however, has reasons over and above that of facing his former club for wanting to ensure that the success of the Ukrainian, Oliver Bierhoff and Leonardo is not at his expense. Galvanised by France's victory in the World Cup, Desailly left Milan last summer because he could not face the prospect of a third successive season devoid of European competition at San Siro, only for the Rossoneri to go and win the title again.

He will not want to be second best to Milan, of all clubs. Success and a challenge is what drives him on rather than anorak-type statistical feats like becoming the first man to win the European Cup with three different clubs (Marseilles being the other); he dismissed that yesterday as a motivating force, just as he seemed oblivious to the rather more pertinent fact that Chelsea have not conceded a goal this season while he has been on the pitch.

Gianluca Vialli, the Chelsea manager, is in no doubt about the importance of his central defender to the Champions' League challenge. "He's got great experience, he's got desire and he's a winner. He doesn't like to be somewhere without aiming for something important."

Facing Milan at Stamford Bridge will not hold any special emotions for Desailly, but he admitted that the return might do so. To him, Milan was still the best club in the world: "For their organisation, their way of thinking and their behaviour." It was a club Chelsea could learn from.

His team-mate Gianfranco Zola agreed that the European Cup, in which he has competed just once, with Napoli, could "make us grow". Unlike Desailly, he seemed genuinely excited about tonight's tie, against his fellow countrymen. Interestingly, Zola thought that the heavy schedule could be to the advantage of Chelsea (and presumably the other two English clubs), who are used to such demands.

Asked to select the team to beat, his manager, however, went unhesitatingly for Lazio, before, perhaps diplomatically, adding the names of Manchester United, Arsenal, and finally Milan. And Chelsea? Vialli advised caution. "It is our first time in the Champions' League, so it would be wrong to hold out too many expectations," he said, "even though we know we are capable of beating anybody."

CHELSEA (probable): De Goey; Ferrer, Desailly, Leboeuf, Le Saux; Petrescu, Wise, Deschamps, Poyet; Sutton, Zola.