Football: Impasse at superpower summit
Wednesday 30 December 1998
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.
Latest in Sport
Radamel Falcao: 'Changes are not easy, but there are times when you have to'
Female BBC presenter receives offensive and sexist letter after she criticised level of women's sport given TV coverage and sponsorship
Premier League 2015/16 kits: Confirmed and rumoured strips from Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and others
The 12 worst haircuts of the 2014/15 Premier League season
West Brom vs Arsenal: Aaron Ramsey desperate to be back in the middle for Arsenal title challenge
- 1 Toddler throws a tantrum at the White House – in front of Barack Obama
- 2 Irish people are travelling home from all over the world so they can vote to legalise gay marriage
- 3 Picture of couple posing with beached dolphin 'that later died' causes outrage
- 4 16-year-old girl beaten and burned alive by lynch mob in Rio Bravo, Guatemala
- 5 Witch doctor arrested after forcing newborn baby to walk in Indian village
As a white man, I'm surprised more women aren't tweeting the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen
Scotland may have to leave the EU even if it votes to stay in, David Cameron confirms
Report finds that Britain's wages are the most unequal in Europe
The day that Britain resigned as a global power
Almost a third of school pupils believe 'Muslims are taking over our country', study claims
Gay marriage 'Bert and Ernie' cake bakery found guilty of discrimination in Northern Ireland
£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...
£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...
£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...