Football: Impasse at superpower summit

THE PITY of last night's goalless draw between championship pretenders at Stamford Bridge was that a hectically enjoyable first half should lead not to an appropriate climax but to a barren display which offered an inaccurate impression of the current struggle at the top of the Premiership.

Significant absences played more of a role than should be the case with squads of the size and depth so assiduously compiled by Chelsea and Manchester United, and the two sides' respective weaknesses, rather than their strengths, were allowed to cancel each other out as the evening drifted towards a disappointingly stalemate.

The match was being shown live to a pay-per-view television audience in Italy, where football is in the middle of a break lasting from the weekend before Christmas until the Sunday after New Year. The presence of Gianfranco Zola and Roberto Di Matteo in Chelsea's starting line-up, the nationality of their coach, and the prospect of Manchester United facing Internazionale in the quarter-final of the European Cup in March clearly added to the fixture's Italian box-office appeal.

Viewers in Florence, Milan and Rome may also have noted a similarity between the Premier League and Serie A in that both contests have reached the turn of the season in a refreshingly open state. Aston Villa's sustained challenge, Arsenal's post-World Cup problems, the blossoming of Leeds United's youth, Liverpool's recovery under Gerard Houllier, Manchester United's gradual understanding of what it takes to compete at the top level both at home and in Europe, and Chelsea's greater authority and consistency under the novice Gianluca Vialli have turned the championship into an unpredictable battle between teams offering an enjoyable variety of style and character.

Last night's match was predictable in that it brimmed with pace and passion, often lacking in finesse and reflection but offering the players a test of nerve as well as skill and tactical preparation. Probably bearing in mind United's exceptional record of six wins and two draws in their last eight visits, Vialli deployed Dan Petrescu and Celestine Babayaro in the wide midfield positions, giving his team an extra layer of defence with which to deter the incursions of David Beckham and Ryan Giggs - although Petrescu, in the manner of the absent Gustavo Poyet, occasionally appeared as the most advanced man in the Chelsea attack.

Embedded within the shifting tapestry were several individual duels that constantly caught the eye, notably those between Tore Andre Flo and Ronny Johnsen around the United penalty area and Giggs and Albert Ferrer on the right flank of the Chelsea defence. Flo was in a mood to cause the sort of trouble he had given Brazil last summer and should have scored with a glancing header from Zola's inswinging corner after 10 minutes. Other chances came his way later in the first half but Peter Schmeichel was equal to them, as he had been to three of Zola's efforts. Giggs versus Ferrer was a real battle of wit and guile, featuring the Welshman's readiness to track back whenever the Spaniard threatened to spring forward in support of his attack.

United came out after half-time clearly with the intention of trying to take the game to Chelsea, but they found it difficult to achieve coherence or penetration. Their persistent inability to hold on to the ball up front represented an unwanted but eloquent tribute to the missing Dwight Yorke. Too many of the red-shirted attackers were dealing in movements consisting of flicks and turns which evaporated when confronted by the resolute Franck Leboeuf and Michael Duberry around the edge of Chelsea's area. The arrival of Teddy Sheringham in place of Paul Scholes after an hour represented an obvious gambit.

Chelsea, perhaps dispirited by the sequence of missed opportunities in the first half, stumbled through a limp third quarter, with Jaap Stam now taking charge of stifling Flo and Zola removed to the periphery. The busy little Jody Morris was receiving insufficient help from Di Matteo, while Graeme Le Saux's lung-bursting runs were unproductive.

Despite the abundance of their squad, suddenly the team on the field looked surprisingly threadbare.