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Football: Gullit sings praises of the Blues

Newcastle United 0 Chelsea 1

IT WAS difficult to tell from Ruud Gullit's demeanour after this match whether he was the manager of the side which had just lost its third consecutive Premiership match, or the one which had established a new club record of 20 games without defeat to go top of the League.

His praise of Chelsea, the club which sacked him 11 months ago, was so fulsome and proprietorial that it would have been no surprise to see him climb aboard the visitors' coach to the airport for the evening flight to London.

"Chelsea have to win the championship now because there is so much quality in their side," Gullit said, after this first encounter with his former club since his departure from Stamford Bridge. And there was little doubt about who he felt had planted the seed whose blue flowers had just come into bloom on top of the Premiership stem.

Well, at least he can take credit for having signed Gianluca Vialli, the man who has been nurturing Chelsea's fortunes for 50 games now as player-manager and who was rather more realistic about his side's performance.

"We didn't start well, Newcastle had a lot of chances and our goalkeeper produced some great saves," he said.

Indeed, had Ed de Goey not been in outstanding form, Chelsea's progress to the top might have been nipped in the bud. He kept his side in it with a double block from Dietmar Hamann's free-kick and Nolberto Solano's strike from the rebound, turned away an effort from debutante Didier Domi and touched Gary Speed's dipping 30-yard shot on to the crossbar.

With a rejuvenated Alan Shearer holding the ball up well at the head of the attack, Duncan Ferguson's replacement, Stephen Glass, providing effective support and the 20-year-old midfielder Domi demonstrating his ability as both defender and attacker, Newcastle looked irresistible, particularly down the left flank.

But Chelsea clung on to mount the sort of smash-and-grab raid in a daunting away fixture that is one of the requirements of putative English champions.

In a rare break, Dennis Wise got to the byline on the left, Vialli failed to make contact with his cross, but nobody had picked up Dan Petrescu on the far post and the Romanian beat Shay Given with a first-time volley.

Though it was a lead they had to defend for the best part of an hour, Chelsea did so in depth with Wise and Gianfranco Zola as likely to be found in their own penalty area as in their accustomed forward positions.

And as Newcastle's increasing anxiety - which also led to a first appearance as substitute for Louis Saha - began to leave gaps at the back, Chelsea could have extended their marginal victory but for some equally impressive goal-keeping by Given.

"In the second half we defended very well and we created three or four great chances on the counter-attack. We should have killed off the game," Vialli said.

His predecessor was left to reflect on the work still to be done before the green shoots of a Newcastle revival are seen at St James' Park.

"There was a huge difference in quality between the sides and we need more quality on the right-hand side," Gullit said. Newcastle have now used 28 players this season but it looks as though a few more will pass through the revolving doors before Gullit is as satisfied with his current side as he is with his previous one.

Goal: Petrescu (39) 0-1.

Newcastle United (3-4-3): Given; Charvet, Howey, Hughes; Domi, Speed, Hamann, Solano (Lee, 72); Glass, Shearer, Andersson (Saha, 58). Substitutes not used: Barton, Dabizas, Harper (gk).

Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Ferrer, Duberry, Leboeuf, Le Saux; Petrescu, Desailly, Di Matteo, Wise; Zola (Nicholls, 88), Vialli. Substitutes not used: Goldbaek, Terry, Morris, Hitchcock (gk).

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

Bookings: Newcastle Hughes; Chelsea Le Saux, Desailly, Ferrer.

Man of the match: De Goey.

Attendance: 36,711.