Football: Leboeuf: Why we blow hot and cold

Fighting spirit the key as Chelsea get to grips with split personality. By Andrew Longmore in Rome
Click to follow
SUNDERLAND, ROME, Hull. From the Stadium of Light to the Stadio Olimpico to Boothferry Park. Rock musicians used to decorate their guitar cases with itineraries like that. And we wonder why Chelsea are becoming the nation's most neurotic football team, slayers of Manchester United and Feyenoord one moment, sleepwalkers at Watford and Sunderland the next.

A bitterly cold Roman night only served to heighten the contradiction as Chelsea, with a discipline and commitment so lacking the previous weekend, settled into winter hibernation comfortable in the knowledge that, barring a collapse of Premiership proportion, their place in the knock-out stages of the Champions' League - if you will pardon the paradox - is assured. Now, the feeling was in the aftermath of the 0-0 draw with fellow European parvenus Lazio, we can really concentrate on the League. After the Cup, that is.

"We just have to think about what we did tonight and play the same way," Frank Leboeuf said. "It's good for us now to have the break from Europe because we have probably been distracted. Last Sunday we came in for training and sat down for an hour to have a chat. No one was blaming anyone else and it wasn't Gianluca [Vialli] telling us what was wrong. It's not a monologue. He wants to know what we think, it's one of his strengths.

"If there is a solution, we need to sort it out very quickly. How do we cope with playing two different types of football? In the league we have to fight more and we have to fight more away from home when it's always a big battle. But we have done it in the past and we can do it again."

Leboeuf, as he would acknowledge, is one of the sources of Chelsea's dual personality. So elegant and self-possessed given time and space on the ball, able to pick a pass with left or right foot, as accurate over 40 yards as he is over 10, the Frenchman can look intensely vulnerable against any side that invades his own sense of the clock. Leboeuf's natural instinct under attack is to retreat - Marcel Desailly's, incidentally, is to go forward - and several times in Rome on Tuesday night, he allowed Simone Inzaghi to push him five yards beyond the line of his fellow defenders.

Leboeuf played himself out of trouble each time and, in the second half, corrected the fault, but he has a highly developed notion of order which is far better suited to the sophistication of midweek than the mayhem of a Saturday. Keep at him, scuff his shoes, ruffle his tie, crease his shirt, make him look untidy and you will penetrate his psyche, invade his principles, shatter his arrogance just as Neil Ruddock used to wind up Eric Cantona during a game by turning down the Frenchman's famously angled collar.

"There is a good fight and a bad fight," Leboeuf said. "If it's rugby, I will support my team as I did in the World Cup, but I'm not very good at it myself. I'm not a fighter in the way that some people see football. But... against [Alen] Boksic and Inzaghi, we had a hard battle and we handled it." By keeping the nasty, aggressive, Boksic back until the last 20 minutes, Sven-Goran Eriksson, the Lazio coach, missed the chance to put more pressure on Leboeuf. I suspect the Swede will not make the same mistake again when the two teams meet in what should be the decisive match of the group at Stamford Bridge on 22 March. Without Leboeuf, Chelsea lack a genuinely creative long-range passer; with him, they can assume an unwarranted belief in their divine right to three points.

One radical solution would be to push Leboeuf forward into midfield for selected matches where his technical skills would complement the blue- collar virtues of Dennis Wise and Didier Deschamps and his lack of muscularity would be less exposed. The sale of the uncompromising Michael Duberry is beginning to look more and more like one of the manager's greater aberrations.

Vialli need look no further than his own centre-forward to find the sort of player that Chelsea's defence loathes. In Rome, Tore-Andre Flo gave the Lazio defence such a torrid night the only way Fernando Couto could find to stop him strayed well beyond the borders of legitimacy. The theatrical dive which managed to spark the anger of both the usually placid Norwegian and the newly responsible Vialli was the last resort of a man in desperate need of some peace and quiet. Flo is like a hyperactive child; he never gives you a minute to think and in Italian football, where rhythms are more staccato and teams tend to defend in the last third of the field more than the first, that is rare. English defenders, of which there are still a few, expect and enjoy such relentless confrontations, which is perhaps why Flo is so much less influential in the Premiership.

Flo's work rate in Rome was prodigious. In the closing minutes, with Albert Ferrer temporarily stranded upfield, Chelsea had to close down a Lazio counter-attack rapidly. And who should be dragging his stork-like legs back into a defensive position? Had Gianfranco Zola or Gustavo Poyet, both of whom were disappointing, managed to exploit Flo's ceaseless running, Chelsea might have come away with greater reward. Too often Flo pulled defenders away from the centre only to find a penalty box largely devoid of yellow shirts. The sight of Flo, at 6ft 4in, crossing to Zola, at 5ft 7in, is tactically perplexing anyway, but ask Flo if being more selfish might make him a more effective centre-forward and he will look at you with blue-eyed bewilderment.

"I can't just stand there and wait for the ball," he says. "I think I play better when I am moving and looking for the ball all the time. That's how I enjoy playing anyway." Pierluigi Casiraghi, one person who would have thrived on Flo's industry, is making optimistic noises about a return next season after a second operation on his knee; the other, Chris Sutton, wandered past as we were talking, completely ignored, clutching a history book entitled 1066: the Year of the Three Battles. On how Vialli can coax Sutton and Flo into a profitable working relationship largely depends the health of Chelsea's domestic season.

With Europe stowed away in the back of their minds until late February when they visit Marseilles, Chelsea have no readymade excuse for their fallibility in the Premiership. "We really have to start playing when we get back to England," Leboeuf said. "It's good for us to have a break from Europe now."

In a suspiciously choreographed gesture of friendship, the Lazio Ultras unveiled a banner before the match. "Only two teams in Europe," it read. "See you in the final." It is a long shot, from Chelsea's perspective at least. By the time they resume their travels, Chelsea's league fate will have been decided, in outline, if not conclusively. No more starry nights in Rome for the Gucci brigade, it's time for rolled up sleeves and clogs.