Football: Key to defence lost and found - Rotary club in debt to class of Desailly

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The Independent Online
IS Marcel Desailly the defender Liverpool missed? Anfield may be given the opportunity to confirm that suspicion today but then again may not; for the Frenchman is one of Gianluca Vialli's many flexible friends, capable of playing more than one position but unable to guarantee that he will be offered any of them for a given game.

When Chelsea jumped in ahead of Roy Evans and the rest of a queue stretching across Europe after the World Cup and paid Milan pounds 4.6m for Desailly, the assumption was that his fellow countryman Franck Leboeuf had been influential in helping to secure the deal. That would transfer to Stamford Bridge the match made in the footballing heaven that was Paris in the summer as their country became world champions.

It looked like a more sophisticated modern version of the Scandinavian partnership between Erland Johnsen (last seen in Norway on Tuesday vainly trying to keep up with Stan Collymore) and Jakob Kjeldberg that was brought together under Glenn Hoddle. Hoddle and then Ruud Gullit, in their Chelsea playing days, added a fresh dimension by occasionally slotting in as sweeper with the rare ability which Desailly clearly possess - to step up into midfield either for a single counter-attack or a more sustained offensive burst.

When Gullit overestimated his worth and underestimated the ruthlessness of those employing him last February, Vialli took over and reverted to 4-4-2, pairing Leboeuf with either Frank Sinclair or Michael Duberry. After Desailly and the Spanish full-back Albert Ferrer were signed this summer, Sinclair quickly took the hint and departed for Leicester, but Duberry was rather unexpectedly reprieved.

Desailly's initial appearance alongside Leboeuf for the opening league game at Coventry did not go to plan, Dion Dublin, Darren Huckerby and Noel Whelan creating havoc in a good old-fashioned British airforce and sending Vialli and his assistant, Graham Rix, home to think again.

The upshot was that, insofar as there has been any such thing as a regular Chelsea line-up, Duberry has returned to partner Leboeuf with Desailly offering protection in front of them. The back line is therefore beefier, but the bottom line is that because Duberry's distribution is so erratic, the ball often comes straight back.

According to Age Hareide, coach of Helsingborg, the Swedish team who had Chelsea holding on gratefully for a goalless draw in their European Cup-winners' Cup tie on Thursday, the defence is still not a coherent unit. "The full-backs don't hold the line as well as they should," he said. "There's always space behind them and they push up ahead of the centre-halves. We planned to get in behind and I was surprised how many chances we created."

The Norwegian who coaches in Sweden and lives in Denmark, catching the Hamlet ferry across the bay from Elsinore each morning, will be fascinated to see Chelsea take on the Danes of FC Copenhagen next.

He has further encouraging words for representatives of his latest adopted country and, indeed, for Liverpool today. Hareide believes that the communal work ethic of English football he came to admire as a midfielder with Manchester City and Norwich in the 1980s is diluted by recruiting too many foreign legionaries. "They do not play together and it is difficult to do that when you have a back four from Spain, England and France and a midfield of differing nationalities too," he said. "They have very good individual players but they don't perform as a unit."

It would be easier to do so, of course, if the defensive unit was not changed quite so frequently. Making Desailly a permanent part of it from this afternoon onwards would seem a sensible step towards complementing Cup exploits with the League success that Vialli and Chelsea crave.