Football: Glamour boys fall to scrap dealers

Coventry City 2 Chelsea 1
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The Independent Online
INPUT: 13 international players, speaking eight languages, costing pounds 34.5m to buy and pounds 1m a month to keep. Output: One goal, no points.

That was Chelsea's balance sheet from Highfield Road when the first results of the season were released on Saturday. Money may talk but it does not necessarily make sense.

Chelsea's defeat to Coventry was not entirely unexpected, it also happened on opening day last season and it was always going to take a little time for Marcel Desailly, Albert Ferrer and Pierluigi Casiraghi to adapt to the English game's high-tempo and laissez-faire refereeing. In addition, with Celestine Babayaro and Gustavo Poyet having rarely played last season communication problems were not just linguistic.

Yet even with those qualifications the match did little to erase the doubts as to Chelsea's championship prospects. As the Premiership's glamour side they have become one of the teams to beat before becoming hard to beat. They may have come fourth last season but they lost 15 matches, nine more than Arsenal.

They are also still to find the right response when opponents get physical. Graeme Le Saux, Dennis Wise and Frank Leboeuf, in particular, tend to lose their their heads and their tempers instead of just standing firm.

Not that Coventry were dirty, just determined to ensure Chelsea were given no time to dwell on the ball and demonstrate their quality. "They are better players than we are so we knew we had to work tremendously hard to beat them," said Gordon Strachan, the Coventry manager.

Chelsea were no slackers but their work-rate lacked the edge that came from Coventry's fear of what might happen if they eased up. City have good players but only Marcus Hedman, who had an outstanding game in goal, George Boateng and the goalscorers, Dion Dublin and Darren Huckerby, would have a chance of making even Chelsea's squad. Having had their confidence boosted with two goals in 16 minutes they scrapped like mink to keep it.

This desire, which reflects Strachan's personality, and the goal-threat of Dublin and Huckerby, is the reason why this year no one has tipped them for the drop. With further strengthening Europe could even be within reach.

Chelsea, who paraded seven World Cup players, are aiming far higher. On the eve of the game Gianluca Vialli admitted: "I have no excuse. We've got exactly the team we were looking for."

There were good signs, notably the sharpness of Casiraghi who, if it had not been for Hedman, might have had a hat-trick and will clearly score heavily. The midfielders all had promising moments but one wonders if Desailly might end up bringing his presence to bear there rather than at the back where Huckerby proved to be more trouble than Ronaldo had been.

The 22-year-old, who should make an England debut this season, drifted away from him after 11 minutes to chip Dublin's flick-on over Ed de Goey for the first. Then Dublin nonchalantly beat Desailly and Poyet to head in Noel Whelan's free-kick.

Chelsea responded with a Poyet header from Wise's free-kick but could not beat Hedman again. To chants of "Eng-ger-land, Eng-ger-land" Coventry held on.

A victory for England? Not quite, significant roles were played by Scandinavian, Dutch and Scot while a pair of Belgians wait in the wings. In addition, Coventry's priorities seem askew when jobsworths order the club's apprentices, all dressed in smart suits and hoping to learn from the likes of Desailly, to watch the game on television in the bar downstairs as there was not a proper seat for them.

There should have been at least one vacant place as the police belief that the game's overweening hype will provoke a return to violence was given justification by some spectators.

One particular incident showed the sometimes uncomfortable juxtaposition between the alleged gentrification of the game and the tensions raised by its present intensity. When Poyet scored a five-year-old girl, seated with her father in an area reserved for home fans, stood up wearing a Chelsea shirt and waved a Chelsea flag almost as big as she. A Coventry fan nearby spewed forth a torrent of abuse and demanded the stewards throw the interlopers out.

With the intervention of his friends an uneasy calm prevailed though the terrified little girl kept the flag down from then on. Leaving aside the foolishness of the parent - and the near-certainty that Stamford Bridge would have been equally intolerant - the worrying aspect was the weakness of the stewards who were even more reluctant to intervene when the same Coventry fan later picked a fight with a fellow City supporter over the merits, or otherwise, of Whelan.

Controlled passion, as exhibited by City's players, is a tremendous asset. Uncontrolled it becomes something nastier. When a caller to Six-O-Six is demanding the sacking of Kenny Dalglish barely 100 minutes after Newcastle's opening game it underlines that the first victim of the season is perspective.

Next week Newcastle visit Chelsea. If either lose the season's first "crisis club" will be upon us. No wonder both are reported to have requested "further information" following an approach from the proposed European superleaguers. Coventry, 32 unbroken seasons in the top flight and counting, still await the call.

Goals: Huckerby (11) 1-0; Dublin (16) 2-0; Poyet (37) 2-1.

Coventry City (4-4-2): Hedman; Nilsson, Shaw, Williams, Burrows; Telfer, Boateng (P Hall, 88), Solvedt, Whelan (M Hall, 70); Dublin, Huckerby. Substitutes not used: Ogrizovic (g), Wallemme, Haworth. Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Ferrer, Desailly, Lebouef, Le Saux; Poyet, Di Matteo (Zola, 76), Wise; Babayaro; Casiraghi, Vialli (Flo, 68). Substitutes not used: Duberry, Hitchcock, Newton.

Referee: G Barber (Woking).

Booked: Coventry: Telfer, Solvedt, Burrows, Huckerby. Chelsea: Wise, Vialli, Ferrer.

Man of the match: Dublin.

Attendance: 23,042.

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