Football: Multinational seeks Blue-chip status

Premiership: Poor early League form is putting pressure on Vialli's expensive Chelsea collection of foreigners
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The Independent Online
CHANNEL CHELSEA, the in-house television station, began its post- match coverage following Wednesday's draw against Arsenal with a run-through of the club's goals this season. It did not take long, even with the three of them replayed from every angle.

Like a malevolent storm cloud the appellation "crisis club" drifted across London that night from N17 towards SW6. After successive wins Tottenham were basking in rare contentment while the spotlight was turned on Chelsea.

This seems harsh given that Gianluca Vialli has just steered the club to their third honour in six months, but the Uefa Super Cup is one of the few trophies valued more highly by silversmiths than footballers. The Premiership is the target and Chelsea are second from bottom with two goals from three matches.

It is a record that was not anticipated when Brian Laudrup, Pierluigi Casiraghi, Marcel Desailly and Albert Ferrer were added to a multi-talented, multi-national squad in the summer. But, to some, the indications were there: in 16 League games since Gianluca Vialli took over as player-manager the side have won six and lost eight, lower mid-table form which Vialli has so far excused by saying: "we were concentrating on the cups last season".

They did so with great success, winning the Coca-Cola Cup and European Cup-Winners' Cup, but the scale of the investment now demands a serious challenge for Premiership honours. On the eve of the season Ken Bates, the chairman, admitted in the club magazine: "Winning cups is all very well and I hope we win one every year - maybe two for luck -but the true measure of greatness is the championship."

Vialli, a champion as a player but still on trial as a manager, agrees. He also feels the poor start - his team are already eight points behind Liverpool - is no bar to progress.

Yesterday he spoke with his customary quiet charm as he sat, his expensively elegant suit contrasting with the functional clubhouse furniture, at the university sports ground near Heathrow that Chelsea use as their training base. "It is an important game [against Nottingham Forest today] but I am quite confident," he said. "I see the team improving, the results can be better but I know the team can play well.

"For some reason we are not able to score goals at the moment but that is not something to worry about. In football sometimes you can score, sometimes you can't, but things turn around.

"It is difficult because teams come to Stamford Bridge to defend - they want a point. It means we have lots of possession but it is hard for us to play the killer balls, there is no space for the strikers."

Although a dispute with the club's own Clubcall line meant several players were refusing to talk the press there was no sign of tension during training. Rather than concentrate on shooting practice, and perhaps make the problem appear greater, the main feature was an eight-a-side match without any goals at all, the object of the exercise being to keep possession.

Just as important was a lengthy warm-up. Vialli has further developed the emphasis on preparation begun by Glenn Hoddle and Ruud Gullit by bringing in Antonio Pintus, his former fitness trainer at Juventus. Vialli, who has reduced days off to one a week, not two, has also overseen a pounds 100,000 extension to the gym. A new chef preparing better meals means players do not snack on junk food on the way home from training.

"We are physically stronger," Vialli said. "When I took over I thought we could improve a lot physically. We have great players with great skills so if we can run faster and for longer than the opposition and organise them tactically we should win all the games."

Simple really, and the defender Michael Duberry admitted players did feel stronger. Mental fatigue, a product of physical weariness, had led, he said, "to too many personal errors as we let our concentration slip, sometimes in the last 15 minutes."

All very good but, as Vialli said, the team needs to be organised tactically - which is his job. At present he still seems to be searching for the right balance. One problem is the lack of genuine wide players. Michael Laudrup is the nearest thing but personal experience of last season's fiercely contested Chelsea-Arsenal games should have shown Vialli that Wednesday night was not the right occasion for his first start.

"One problem," Ed de Goey, the goalkeeper, said, "is that we have new players and they have to settle in. It was the same last year [when Chelsea also lost their opening game at Coventry]. Against Arsenal we showed we could be solid in defence and that is important for us as defenders and the team.

"We also have a lot of players who were involved in the World Cup [10] but that also applies to other clubs, like Arsenal and Manchester United."

With 30 players of first-team experience, including 16 internationals (see panel), selecting the right eleven is clearly tricky. "There is more stress as manager but I enjoy it," Vialli said. "As as a person I am more thoughtful, I feel more responsible."

Of course there are crises and crises. A decade ago, when Chelsea were forever battling bankruptcy, relegation and hooliganism, Bridge News, the club paper, followed one particularly harrowing week with the headline "Crisis, what Crisis?". It was inspired by Bates and when he twice bumped into Vialli during his summer holidays, once on their yachts in Portofino, and once in Monte Carlo, he must have reflected how far the club has come.

So far Bates has strongly backed Vialli but his fifth manager in six seasons knows how great expectations have become. Chelsea have not won the title since 1955 but rarely have they been so well equipped. The current investment in premium players is a high-risk strategy: though several were signed on free transfers, few have significant resale values and the wage bill is huge.

It is a lot to put on the shoulders of an inexperienced manager and the pressure is on Vialli to pick the right team today. With confidence this Chelsea side will hammer some clubs - but confidence is one quality that cannot be bought.

TEAM VIALLI

CHELSEA'S INTERNATIONALS

Celestine Babayaro Nigeria

Pierluigi Casiraghi Italy

Ed de Goey Netherlands

Marcel Desailly France

Roberto di Matteo Italy

Albert Ferrer Spain

Tore Andre Flo Norway

Dimitri Kharine Russia

Brian Laudrup Denmark

Franck Lebouef France

Graeme Le Saux England

Dan Petrescu Romania

Gustavo Poyet Uraguay

Gianluca Vialli Italy

Dennis Wise England

Gianfranco Zola Italy

VIALLI'S RECORD

League matches

1997-98

21 Feb Leicester (A) 0-2

28 Feb Man Utd (H) 0-1

8 Mar Aston Villa (H) 0-1

11 Mar West Ham (A) 1-2

5 Apr Derby (A) 1-0

8 Apr Leeds (A) 1-3

11 Apr Tottenham (H) 2-0

19 Apr Sheff Wed (H) 1-0

25 Apr Liverpool (H) 4-1

29 Apr Blackburn (H) 0-1

2 May Newcastle (A) 1-3

10 May Bolton (H) 2-0

1998-99

15 Aug Coventry (A) 1-2

22 Aug Newcastle (H) 1-1

9 Sept Arsenal (H) 0-0

Cup Matches

1997-98

18 Feb Arsenal

Coca-Cola s-f second leg (H) 3-1

5 Mar Real Betis

ECWC qf lst leg (A) 2-1

19 Mar ECWC qf 2nd leg (H) 3-1

29 Mar Middlesbrough

CC Cup final (at Wembley) 2-0

2 Apr Vicenza

ECWC sf lst leg (A) 0-1

16 Apr ECWC sf 2nd leg (H) 3-1

13 May VfB Stuttgart

ECWC final (Stockholm) 1-0

1998-99

28 Aug Real Madrid

European Super Cup (Monaco) 1-0

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