Football: Faltering London challenge leaves United making capital gains

Chelsea the victims of rough and stumble
Click to follow
The Independent Online
leaves United making capital gains

Chelsea 0

Leeds United 0

In ending a Chelsea run of six home wins and 18 goals George Graham will feel the end justified the means but he is used to leaving West London with ill-gotten gains. Six years ago this month it was pounds 140,500 in used readies collected from a Park Lane hotel, on Saturday it was a valuable Premiership point from Stamford Bridge.

The 1991 transaction involved a smooth-talking Norwegian, this time it was concluded with the aid of an international team resembling hired thugs. Two of them were dismissed and a third should have been as Leeds reduced the Premiership's match of the day to a kicking contest.

Perhaps it was some perverse memorial to the spirit of Billy Bremner - Alf Inge Haland, the first to go after just 20 minutes, was wearing his old No.4 shirt.

Bremner, however, could play as well as intimidate and Haland and company should have left the remembrance to the fans of both sides. They, to general surprise given the emnity between these teams over the years, had observed an impeccable minute's silence beforehand.

If that reflected the new face of English football what followed was a throwback. Leeds arrived at Chelsea seeking a point and not too fussy about how they won it. Last May, in a match of six bookings, they drew 0-0 at the Bridge, earlier in that season they had kicked Chelsea off the park at Elland Road. This time, however, Chelsea and Graham Poll were equal to the challenge.

While Poll waved 10 yellow and two red cards in the opening 45 minutes, Chelsea mixed it on and off the ball - all their bookings were for spats. Leeds were more severely punished because they committed most of the fouls. But if Chelsea proved - as at Old Trafford in September - that they are no longer easy to intimidate they also lost their rhythm and, when the game calmed down in the second period, were unable to recapture it. In that respect Leeds succeeded in breaking up their flowing football - albeit at a cost.

It did not make much of a game, the beautiful sunset to the west ("red sky at night, Heathrow's alight", said one wag) was easier on the eye than the brutality beneath it.

Old hands recalled the infamous 1970 FA Cup final replay between these two clubs and observed that Saturday's game was a tea party by comparison but those that did so with misty eyes were mistaken. The game has moved on and matches like Saturday do English football no good at all.

This is not because Mr and Mrs Audi would stop taking Tarquin and Tara to football if it looked "rough". It is because matches like this set an appalling example for amateur players - Sunday morning games like this end in brawls - while leaving the professionals ill-equipped for European and global challenges.

"In Europe it would not be possible to play like that," said Ruud Gullit, "so you have to resolve the game tactically and technically. It demands more of people. You can see it with Manchester United. Normally you would see Gary Pallister making tackles from behind but on Wednesday [against Juventus] he just stayed behind the forward and kept his feet because he is thinking "if I do not I will get a red card or a yellow card and the next game I am not there". People know they have to resolve the game differently. But I live and play in England so I accept it." But he does not like it as an exchange with David O'Leary, Leeds' coach, underlined at the final whistle.

Graham, for his part, condemned those of his players who lost their discipline (Gary Kelly's bookings were plain stupid, one for not retreating 10 yards at a corner despite being asked several times by Poll, another for a wild challenge on Frank Leboeuf). But he swiftly threw out a smokescreen decrying the "foreign influence" of diving. "I didn't see any injuries," he said.

Leaving aside that the worst culprit was Leeds' Jimmy Hasselbaink in the opening minute this was an irrelevance. Chelsea's players kept falling over because they were tripped or chopped. "You have to be injured to get a foul now?" said Gullit. "I think he is deflecting attention from other things."

"We're not a dirty side," said Graham. Leeds have the worst disciplinary record in the Premiership with 42 yellow cards and three red in 18 games. Co-incidentally Arsenal, Graham's former club, are second worst. No wonder Leeds frequently practice defending with reduced numbers in training.

The pity is Leeds' first-half behaviour detracted from a quite outstanding defensive display in the second period. The back three were excellent, notably Lucas Radebe who smothered Gianfranco Zola's threat despite the handicap of a seventh-minute yellow card (which technically should have been red) for scything him down. It was not until the 88th minute that Nigel Martyn had to make a decent save - and then he reacted sharply to Michael Duberry's close-range header. Before then Bruno Ribeiro, who should also have been sent off in the first period, almost scored with a dipping volley in Leeds' only attack of note.

It did not augur well for Chelsea's championship pretensions. Their passing was careless, their imagination limited. They did not utilise the flanks enough and seemed content to wait for something to happen before panicking when it did not. "We did not produce the quality to get through even though we were in control," added Gullit. "That is the main issue to me."

For those with a wider brief the issue was the ugliness of the game. The next World Cup, which will renew the crusade against foul play by the game's world governing body, Fifa, cannot come quickly enough.

Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Sinclair, Duberry, Leboeuf, Le Saux; Petrescu (Crittenden, 86), Di Matteo, Wise, Nicholls (Vialli, 56); Zola, Flo. Substitutes not used: Clarke, Granville, Hitchcock (gk).

Leeds United (3-5-2): Martyn; Wetherall, Radebe, Halle; Kelly, Hopkin, Haland, Ribeiro, Robertson; Hasselbaink (Lilley, h/t), Wallace. Substitutes not used: Bowyer, Molenaar, Maybury, Beeney (gk).

Referee: G Poll (Tring, Herts).

Sendings-off: Leeds: Haland (two bookings), Kelly (two bookings). Bookings: Chelsea: Di Matteo, Wise, Nicholls. Leeds: Radebe, Robertson, Ribeiro.

Man of the match: Radebe.

Attendance: 34,690.