Football: Foreign legion set off in stylish pursuit

Sheffield Wednesday 1 Pembridge 71 Chelsea 4 Petrescu 30, Vialli 56, Leboeuf pen 65, Flo 84 Attendance: 28,334
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The Independent Online
Last Week it was the Bridge of scythes for the crudely awoken Ruud boys. Yesterday afternoon you could only sigh in admiration as Chelsea regained their poise on the Premiership title trail at Hillsborough. They were breathtaking at times as they cut through Sheffield Wednesday and moved within two points of Manchester United.

The execution in front of goal was performed by four of Stamford Bridge's foreign legion, firing squad duties being shared, in turn, by Dan Petrescu of Romania, Gianluca Vialli of Italy, Franck Leboeuf of France and Tore Andre Flo of Norway.

They did much more than ruffle the feathers of the Owls. Wednesday were left looking towards the lower perches of the Premiership once again.

"Chelsea gave us a real spanking," Ron Atkinson said, his Hillsborough return having been shunted beyond the honeymoon period. "I'm sure they must have had harder practice matches." Indeed, the consolation for Wednesdayites, apart from Mark Pembridge's forlorn reply, was that the margin of defeat ought to have been much worse.

"It was important that we won," Ruud Gullit said, "to stay close to Manchester United. But we can play better. I think there's a lot more to come." There might need to be if Chelsea are to repeat their one and only championship success, claimed by Ted Drake's team in 1955. A top-three place, at least, looks a realistic new year target. And the Blue flag has not flown as high as that since 1970.

That Gullit has the required resources at his disposal was evident again yesterday. Having previously made a weekly point of tinkering with a winning side, he adjusted the Chelsea set held to a draw by the nine men of Leeds. Vialli replaced Flo in the starting line-up and did not take long to make his presence felt. There were less than three minutes on the clock when the Italian's polished pate flicked on an up field punt and Gianfranco Zola, his pint-sized compatriot, shot wide of a gaping goal.

Wednesday fleetingly gave us a contest. The midfield scheming of Petter Rudi, their Norwegian Chris Waddle clone, and the trickery of the white- booted Paolo Di Canio posed problems for Chelsea. After Andy Booth headed over in the 17th minute, though, the traffic flowed in one direction. Petrescu, brought to England by Wednesday, was particularly prominent as Chelsea stamped their authority, and their slick-passing class, on the Hillsborough turf.

Fittingly, it was the industrious Romanian international who broke through on the half-hour. Swivelling with his back to goal, some 20 yards out, he dispatched a tracer-bullet of a shot which sped through a forest of legs and, crucially, between the diving Kevin Pressman and his right- hand post. It silenced the previously voluble Kop and not so much quietened as muted Wednesday's challenge.

Rudi suddenly became a rugged shadow of his formerly accomplished self, while the semaphore signals sent by the frustrated Di Canio were a sign of Wednesday's increasing failure to get the ball through to the front line.

They survived a penalty scare just before the break, when Vialli was sent sprawling by Ian Nolan, and another couple of close shaves early in the second half before the inevitable finally materialised in the 56th minute.

Zola swung a left-wing corner into the goalmouth and, though Vialli's header struck the cross-bar, the ball ricocheted off his chest and into the Wednesday net. Eight minutes later, Nolan wrestled Vialli to the ground and Leboeuf blasted Chelsea's third from the penalty spot.

The Wednesday full-back was fortunate merely to find his way into Graham Barber's book rather than be sent on his way to the dressing-room. A further home bonus followed in the 70th minute, Mark Pembridge steering a left- foot shot past the seriously-underemployed Ed De Goey. It was only right, however, that Chelsea should have the final word - and a suitably eloquent one at that.

With six minutes left, Pressman was beaten by a stunning 25-yard shot that was particularly painful for the Hillsborough faithful. It was struck by Flo, whose brother, Jostein, was once a Blade at Bramall Lane.