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Football: Ken rotates kiss and yell policy

Vialli's fortunes take turn for the better as his non-strikers keep the Champions' League flag flying
THERE WILL always be a safe seat for the blue party in the constituency of Kensington and Chelsea. Not so down at the Fulham Road end of the royal borough for the managerial incumbent of Stamford Bridge. Football politics would not be the same without some kind of creative tension between Ken Bates and his manager of the moment. The Chelsea chairman thrives on such devilment as we have witnessed during a week when he has pontificated on his manager's rotationals, remarking that they were not always spiralling to good effect.

The way it was received by some - "the wrath of Ken" - it might have been imagined that there was inner fury akin to that of his distant motel- running cousin, Norman. Yet an hour after the defeat of Hertha Berlin on Wednesday left Chelsea atop their Champions' League group, the twinkly- eyed Falstaff of SW6 was protesting with typical insouciance that far from a verbal slap he had nothing more on his mind than a smacker for his manager.

"I phoned Luca this morning and we talked about it and had a good laugh. The last occasion there was a bit of pressure I said to him `When I see you next I'll give you a big, sloppy kiss', and I did. I said to him today, `I think it's time for another kiss'." While you cannot imagine that such a relationship exists within the machiavellian state of Serie A, Vialli is presumably by now familiar with his chairman's idiosyncrasies.

"I didn't criticise the players or the manager," Bates, part zealot, part despot, growled as he departed. "I simply said that Luca has acknowledged that maybe he has made a few mistakes in his rotation policy and that the players who were given the opportunity to play in the Worthington Cup and against Derby blew their chances to demonstrate what valuable squad members they were."

The ever-astute Vialli has played it politically very correct by ostentatiously donning the hair-shirt and issuing an unreserved apology in Wednesday's programme for the debacle at Derby. While love affairs can quickly turn to bitter recrimination in football, there is little prospect of a schism between the pair, although there is real frustration from all quarters that a side who can outclass Milan can be overturned by Watford and Derby County.

In a sense Wednesday was the easier part of Vialli's week. On a surreal night one could be forgiven for assuming that Berlin had already received advanced notification that they would qualify by dint of Galatasaray's eventual defeat of Milan, such was their dismal performance.

Whatever had inspired Vialli to begin with an arrowhead front three, with Gianfranco Zola and Tore Andre Flo working wide of the apex provided by Chris Sutton, it did not look a convincing strategy, although the manager got lucky. Didier Deschamps and Albert Ferrer became the ninth and 10th non-forwards this season to contribute to Chelsea's goalscoring charts and by the time Vialli had reverted to a two-pronged attack, replacing Zola with the attacking midfielder Gustavo Poyet, the vision of further exotic foreign stages was already in his players' minds.

Lazio are not exactly what Chelsea had in mind. Even without the departed Christian Vieri, the seeded Italians will present a formidable obstacle to Chelsea's ambitions, not least in the form of the Argentinian midfield trio of David Beckham's antagoniser Diego Simeone, Matias Almeyda and Juan Veron. Neither will Feyenoord and Marseilles, the latter Manchester United's conquerors last month, offer an easy passage to the quarter-finals. United, however, should be relatively content to find themselves bracketed with Valencia, Bordeaux and Fiorentina, assuming they do not permit Gabriel Batistuta the freedom that Arsenal allowed him at Wembley.

For the moment Vialli faces merely the dreaded prospect of his team suffering the ignominy of a fourth consecutive Premiership reverse when West Ham visit today. Although it was unwitting, Bates placed a further burden on his manager by making it clear where his priorities lie. "I want to win them both," he said when asked to state a preference for the Champions' League or the Premiership. "But I was more disappointed we lost at home to Arsenal than away in Berlin. That's why I believe that the Premiership is the prime competition for all English clubs."

That, according to Bates, is why a European breakaway league is untenable. "There was an argument about that 18 months ago. I told Manchester United to b****** off and go and play in Europe if that's what they wanted to do. But they daren't do it because the supporters will not put up with it. Football is tribal. That's why the Premiership is so great."

Well, not quite so grand at the moment for Chelsea's talent-laden trolley of foreign dishes who have been wheeled in to Pride Park and Vicarage Road and found not to possess the spice, the flavour or the value of the local fare. It is facile to suggest that their defeats are merely the result of Vialli changing a winning team. One suspects it is more a question of his players failing to adapt their approach to the different rigours of the Premiership.

All the players are acutely aware of their chairman's criticism, according to Ferrer, who is from Barcelona and who knows a thing or two about performing under a Mister Fawlty, having played for the mercurial Dutchman Louis van Gaal. "If we can play this way in the Champions' League, why not in the Premiership?" is the rhetorical question of the diminutive Ferrer, probably the least noticed but most accomplished right-back in English football. "Maybe we need more concentration, to be a little bit more focused," he added. "It is not a problem of quality, it is a problem of, how you say, not being angry enough. When you play against Milan, and then against Derby, on paper you think you are better than them. Maybe you relax."

Yet again, as highlighted in these columns last week, none of that triumvirate of Flo, Zola and Sutton were on the scoresheet on Wednesday. It was fortunate that Deschamps and Ferrer's finishing was so adept.

Ferrer's own pleasure could hardly contrast more with the slurry of despair into which Sutton has pitched headlong. We had always known he was a flawed gem, with a propensity for taking frustration out on his opponents. Now, there are plenty who will eagerly testify that Vialli has spent pounds 10m on paste. Yet he is a perceptive striker, who still contributes significantly when ostensibly having a poor game. On Wednesday the dearth of crosses, and the fact that he was also taking time to assimilate himself into an often abstract style of play, was also evident. "He was very important for the team today. Maybe it didn't show, but he worked really hard for us," maintained his fellow striker Flo. "He really showed desire, and I like that about him. Confidence will come with him, like any striker, when he scores."

Fortunately for Chelsea, they have sufficient numbers with an eye for goal to sustain them in the meantime. They will need such favours against Lazio, but more crucially today against West Ham.