Football: Nicholls makes Chelsea benchmark

Chelsea 3 Nicholls 65, 70, Di Matteo 78 Coventry City 1 Telfer 30 Attendance: 34,647
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The Independent Online
IT WILL take more than a single result for Chelsea to recover fully from the sort of damage inflicted on their status and reputation by Manchester United. Such performances as that constructed by the champions in their classic FA Cup victory provide enduring lessons, but by coming from behind at Stamford Bridge yesterday Ruud Gullit's side at least demonstrated their season has not been terminally affected.

It was a performance of some spirit and panache in the second half, when the 20-year-old substitute Mark Nicholls scored two goals, not least because Coventry City had not only beaten the champions in the league but had followed that by dismissing Liverpool from the FA Cup. By the end it was more the Chelsea we were led to believe existed before United got to grips with them as they swamped Coventry on all sides, but especially on the left where the admirable Graeme Le Saux was never less than prominent and was usually impeccably effective.

To reach this happy state it required the team and their strategy to be reshaped at the interval before which Chelsea lacked spark and were in serious danger of being outsmarted. Their initial change was to revert to a five-man midfield which meant the introduction of Nicholls. They then removed Gianfranco Zola from the fray and inserted Gullit himself at the front, a position which is almost wholly unfamiliar to him these days. The Dutchman was not directly involved in any of the decisive moments which followed but the important thing was that Coventry could hardly take their eyes off him. Chelsea had managed to create several openings at first even though there was the feeling that they were clearly desperate to get back after the United debacle. Mark Hughes, Zola and Le Saux all might have scored. But it was Coventry who did so. They are a toiling, workmanlike lot and in Darren Huckerby they have something more. He had already been a regular handful darting in and out on both flanks when, in the 32nd minute, he crossed from the left. In attempting to clear Danny Granville missed the ball, Paul Telfer, shooting from 10 yards, did not.

Chelsea needed patience for their restyling to work but were rewarded for it by three goals in 10 minutes. Le Saux, almost inevitably, crossed from the left for the first in the 66th minute. Nicholls obliged with the header. Four minutes later it was Le Saux's pass, this time along the ground, which again found Nicholls ready to sweep it home at the post.

The young man, who possesses enormous self-belief, according to Gullit afterwards, to the extent that he thinks himself to be the best player in the world - an attitude which had endeared him to the coach - was also involved in the third goal. His pass across the box was left by Hughes who obviously sensed the presence behind him of Roberto Di Matteo. The shot was swiftly executed.

There was no way back for Coventry and all that their manager, Gordon Strachan, could do afterwards was lightly praise their endeavour while admitting that his tactics might have been slightly too adventurous.

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