Football / FA Premiership: Falconer flies in

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The Independent Online
Sheffield United. . .1

Falconer 32

Chelsea . . . . . . .0

Attendance: 16,119

CHELSEA'S adventurous voyage continues to sail perilously close to the rocks. Yesterday, even an opponent with nothing to celebrate since Wimbledon lost at Bramall Lane on 24 August proved an insurmountable barrier. And the Sheffield side were without their three best forwards to boot.

Last Monday's goalless draw against Manchester City spared Chelsea the embarrassment of equalling a 41-year-old club record for consecutive losing games but if a sense of relief accompanied that result, the anxieties must now be flooding back. Seven defeats in eight matches is the type of sequence that sends football club boards into emergency session and were he not at present so revered, it would be long odds against him maintaining a lengthy tenure at Stamford Bridge.

The lingering effects of flu heightened Hoddle's frustration, forcing him to direct operations from the touchline again. Whether he could have influenced matters more from centre-stage is debatable. Chelsea, kept to a busy tempo by Dennis Wise and Gavin Peacock, looked the superior side.

For the second time in a week, Hoddle dismantled any suspicions that he is wearing a tactical straitjacket by lining his players up in a 4-4-2 pattern, closing off the spaces that his favoured wing-backs have tended to leave open to costly effect.

For the most part it worked: the number of clear chances Sheffield made remained in single figures and it was Chelsea's misfortune that when Willie Falconer met Kevin Gage's right-wing cross with a header in the 32nd minute, the ball cannoned in off a defender's body as Dimitri Kharin flung himself in the other direction.

'It was a cruel goal,' Hoddle said afterwards. 'It hurts even more when you feel you should have taken something from the game.'

Sheffield's goalkeeper, the Irish international Alan Kelly, twice prevented David Hopkin scoring from long distance in the first half, and was especially impressive later when Mark Stein, released by Peacock, seemed as sure to earn Chelsea an equaliser from close range with seven minutes remaining.

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