Football: For all the world a dream final

Ian Ridley delights in the prospect of an exotic celebration of football at Wembley
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A WONDERFUL English occasion, the FA Cup final. From Tarby's bar on the telly to the Twin Towers at Wembley, accompanied by a soundtrack of "Abide With Me", it affords a proud exhibition of a passionate footballing culture. The only problem for traditionalists this year is that the Englishmen on the pitch will almost certainly be outnumbered.

Saturday's match between Chelsea and Middlesbrough will more accurately be an exhibition of New English football in the post-Bosman era with Italy, Brazil, Denmark, Norway, France, Romania and Slovakia all represented. Throw in the odd Scot and Welshman and it will be the most cosmopolitan final in the competition's ever colourful, ever-changing 125-year history, and probably the most-watched ever across the world.

One wonders how strongly its participants will revere the day. Dan Petrescu, for example, recalls taking an interest in a Cup final for the first time only four years ago. "Just a game," said the cool Chelsea player-coach, Ruud Gullit. "I first couldn't understand why it is so important and even now I can't because I am not born here."

All of them now seem to know how much more significant it is in the English scheme of things than elsewhere. "I can feel it. I can sense it," adds Gullit. "I have seen it. It's a happening and now I want to feel what it is."

Rather than a lament for the dilution of a game, it should provide an opportunity to celebrate the Premiership's kaleidoscope. It will not be a day for wondering about the cost and consequences of it all, worrying over the future for domestic talent, but rather a time for enjoying an instructive range of talents.

Cup finals defy predictability, even if Eric Cantona's late winning goal for Manchester United against Liverpool last season could almost be anticipated as the last scene in the script of his rehabilitation. Certainly when it comes to forecasting an entertaining match, one becomes a hostage to fortune. There are, though, so many exotic attacking elements in these two teams that it would be a surprise if the game does not yield moments of sublime technique and ingenuity. "That is what should make it so exciting," says Gullit.

Alas there will be no Dutch treats from the injured Gullit but in the contributions of the Italian Gianfranco Zola and Brazilian Juninho - whom one could see on opposite sides in the World Cup final just over a year hence - there should be ample compensation. In these days of weight-trained athletic endeavour, it should be a delight to witness two diminutive creators with brains engaged.

Zola's impact was immediate on his arrival from Parma last autumn, leading Alex Ferguson, after a goal against his team, to issue lavish praise. "He's better than I thought," said the Manchester United manager. Chelsea, Ferguson added, were the most inventive team he had encountered in the Premiership. Zola's movement and touch, a well- balanced foil for the muscular talents of Mark Hughes, have indeed been an example to the English game.

So, too, the elusive ball-carrying of Juninho, who has emerged this spring after a gloomy winter, stoically borne, as a more durable and energetic figure than his frame might suggest. He, too, has a complementary striking partner in Fabrizio Ravanelli, who is now expected to be fit.

Gullit says he will not depute a man to shadow Juninho - "though it depends where he plays" - and for that we could be grateful, even if Leicester City's Pontus Kaamark showed in the Coca-Cola Cup final that it might be a sound strategy.

It may well be that Gullit has confidence enough in his defence, though their goals-against record of 54 in the Premiership matches that of Nottingham Forest at the foot of the table. They can be vulnerable to the high ball, notably Franck Leboeuf for all his elegance of distribution.

With Boro's record the worst in the league at 59, it would seem that goals should result. Middlesbrough have shown improvement, however, since the addition of the solid Italian Gianluca Festa and the return from injury of Nigel Pearson. A 4-4-2 formation has also given them a more organised aspect.

Much will depend on Middlesbrough's mood after today's result against Leeds, which could send them into the First Division. Relief or despair; which will serve as the better motivation? "If they could do the championship again they would never be in a position to be relegated," says Gullit. He has, though, he adds enigmatically, "seen what I have seen" when it comes to devising a game plan to beat them.

What he will have seen is a disparity between outstanding attacking skills and mostly ordinary defensive ones. Ravanelli and Juninho can be left isolated, with the midfield players Emerson, the quietly competent Robbie Mustoe and Phil Stamp drawn back deep as shield for a back-line that has vulnerable elements in the full-backs Curtis Fleming and Clayton Blackmore and a young, consequently error-prone goalkeeper in Ben Roberts.

By contrast Chelsea move more fluently as a team up and down the park with a midfield of Roberto di Matteo, Dennis Wise and Eddie Newton. In Petrescu, they have probably the best wing-back in the world.

There is also an incisive change of pace about them. "You need to have patience but still play fast," says Gullit. "Patience doesn't mean playing slow because it is easy for the opposition. Keep the speed in there and you will find the opening."

After their Coca-Cola Cup final defeat, it will be hard on Bryan Robson's lovingly if expensively assembled Middlesbrough, in their first FA Cup final, should they end the season with nothing but relegation to show for their brave attempt to join the Premiership's elite. Such a fate also befell Brighton when the Seagulls flew close to the sun in 1983. Chelsea will see their need as being as great, however, with their last trophy, also the FA Cup, coming in 1970.

When it comes to a prediction, head must rule heart; as Boro proved to Chesterfield in the semi-final, sentiment counts for nought. Chelsea's current crop, the better all-round team as the Premiership table reveals, do not carry the club's baggage of under-achievement or reputation of flattering to deceive. Boro may have magical moments but Chelsea should have more. Their Italians to beat the Brazilians 2-1.

Chelsea (possible) (3-5-2): Grodas; Sinclair, Leboeuf, Clarke; Petrescu, Newton, Di Matteo, Wise, Minto; Hughes, Zola.

Middlesbrough (possible) (4-4-2): Roberts; Fleming, Pearson, Festa, Blackmore; Stamp, Mustoe, Emerson, Hignett; Ravanelli, Juninho.