Football: Ilic errs in the survival game

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The Independent Online
Charlton Athletic 0

Chelsea 1

Di Matteo 11

Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 20,046

CHELSEA HAVE lost only three games all season in the Premiership while Charlton have only won three games this year, which goes a long way to explaining why Chelsea are challenging for the title while Charlton are involved in the thick of the relegation struggle.

Yet despite their positions at opposite ends of the table, such a gulf between the two teams was not obvious for most of this game, which was so vibrant at first but sadly petered out after Roberto Di Matteo's 11th- minute goal, the result of an error by the Charlton goalkeeper, Sasa Ilic. Such was the way the game fell away that the tally of substitutions and bookings in the second half alone outweighed the shots on goal by three to one.

With the amount of games remaining diminishing fast for Charlton, and their Premiership survival in ever more peril with each passing week, the need for at least a point even from matches as hard as this is pressing for Alan Curbishley's team. Yet the fact that they failed to get a meaningful shot on target when they threw everything forward in a desperate search for an equaliser said plenty about the resolute nature of Chelsea's defending but even more about where Charlton's problems lie. As a subdued Curbishley stated afterwards: "We need to score goals and start winning some games."

The goal that could prove so crucial to both sides' fortunes at the end of the season came as Albert Ferrer chipped a harmless-looking ball into the Charlton area and Ilic charged off his line. The Yugoslav, wearing a black armband to mark the conflict in his homeland, failed to reach the ball and Carl Tiler headed clear only as far as Di Matteo, who sent his volley down into the ground and past the hapless Ilic. Curbishley called Ilic's rush of blood a "howler" and added: "You can't keep doing that."

To rub it in for Curbishley, Ilic's counterpart, Ed De Goey, then made an equally bad mistake two minutes later when he failed to control a back- pass by his goal-line and let in the alert Martin Pringle. The Swede knocked the ball past De Goey only to see Marcel Desailly, in commanding form, clear off the goal-line.

Yet Charlton, who remain one off the bottom with this result, could have stolen an early lead when, with nine minutes gone, Desailly made a rare mistake as he failed to control a ball, sending it into the air. But Clive Mendonca's header lacked power and De Goey, replaced by Kevin Hitchcock at half-time because of flu, punched over.

However, Hitchcock's goalmouth remained a relatively suspense-free zone despite Charlton having the majority of possession in the second half, and the best chance the home side could muster came after 60 minutes when the debutant and record signing Graham Stuart headed just wide against his former team from Mark Kinsella's inswinging corner.

As Charlton poured forward, Chelsea were happy to get in some practice for their European Cup-Winner's Cup semi-final on Thursday, as they soaked up the pressure and looked for counter-attacks. Their manager, Gianluca Vialli, who refused to admit his side were still contenders to win the league, felt they should have wrapped things up as Tore Andre Flo and Dennis Wise had chances in the dying minutes. But while Ilic atoned in part for his earlier error with two fine saves, by then the damage had been done for Curbishley's Charlton.