Football: Poyet power key to Chelsea glory

Alex Hayes studies a player of presence crucial to Blues' ambition
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The Independent Online
ONE PLAYER does not a team make. No matter who he is or what position he plays in, the consensus is that an individual can never be greater than the sum of all parts. That is, of course, unless your name is Gustavo Poyet.

Not since Roy Keane missed the majority of Manchester United's 1997-98 season has one player's absence been so widely blamed for his team's shortcomings. Around the corridors of Chelsea Village, the message is clear: had "Gus" remained fit last season, Chelsea would now be champions.

"I have no doubt about that," said his team-mate, Gianfranco Zola, after Chelsea's 3-0 win over Skonto Riga in the Champions' League final qualifying round on Wednesday. "Gus has shown everybody how important he is to us. We missed him very much at times last season. If you analyse the final table, we finished only four points behind Manchester United. In a lot of the matches in which we dropped points, the opposition sat back. But a player like Gus can open up defences and make a difference."

Poyet's 22 goals from 59 appearances in a Chelsea shirt (including his left-foot curler in midweek) are testament to that. His 37 per cent strike- rate makes him one of the most prolific scorers from midfield. Last season alone, he netted 11 goals, finishing only two strikes short of the club's top-scorer, Zola, who ended the campaign with 13. It is impossible to estimate how many more goals he would have scored had he not missed four months of the season, but somewhere in the twenties would not be too far-fetched.

This season should prove even more prolific. Having Didier Deschamps and Dennis Wise as two holding midfielders - in the David Batty-Paul Ince mould during Glenn Hoddle's England reign - will give Poyet the freedom to venture forward at will. For the majority of Wednesday night he played in a wide-left position, which allowed him to make late, often unnoticed, runs into the box. And once his 6ft 1in frame is in place, he is the ideal target for crosses. Indeed, nobody scored more than his six headers during the 1998-99 Premiership campaign.

"It's funny with him, you know, when he's in the box he attracts the ball," explained Blues defender Franck Leboeuf. "He can be anywhere in the box and the ball will come to him. I think he has the `nose' to know where the ball will go. He's a perfect player for us, and we all hope he will score many goals, because the more he scores, the more matches we will win."

The statistics would appear to support the Frenchman's view. Of the 11 matches in which Poyet scored last term, Chelsea won eight, drew two and lost only one (on the opening day of the season against Coventry City). Put simply, Chelsea win when Poyet scores. But he is more than just a good header of the ball.

Apart from making use of his aerial advantage, he will regularly cut in from the sidelines and patrol the edge of the box, looking for any loose ball to pounce on. As if to underline his versatility, Poyet took up a central midfield position for long periods of the game on Wednesday - the new Deschamps-Wise axis allowing for these permutations, as the latter is equally at home on the right flank.

Poyet is very comfortable in that pivotal role. His passing is sharp and accurate, and his willingness to take on defenders and penetrate the opposition box allows the likes of Zola to play from deep.

"Sometimes I like to drop back to find the ball or create space," said the Sardinian. "Gus is very good at coming forward. His timing is excellent and it is easy for him to find space in that situation because he keeps the goal in front of him all the time. He is a very good finisher and he helps my game because he gives the team another option." In effect, and depending on the quality of the opposition, the Uruguayan can play either as a creative midfielder, or as an auxiliary frontman.

One aspect of Poyet's game which often goes unsung is his willingness to tackle and harry. He is a strong man, who is not afraid to use his physical presence to hold and shield the ball when in possession, or to win it back when defending. With Poyet, the cause of the team comes first.

A firm favourite in the dressing room, the 31-year-old is also one of those footballers who plays with a smile on his face. His pounds 30,000 weekly wage no doubt helps, but you get the feeling that he is genuinely enjoying himself in the Premiership. A fit Poyet will be crucial to Chelsea's quest for silverware, but if he can stay injury-free many believe he could be collecting trophies of his own. Had it not been for that crude tackle by the Southampton defender Patrick Colleter last Boxing Day, Poyet might have emulated Zola's achievement of three seasons ago by becoming Player of the Year.

Even the eventual winner's best friend, Leboeuf, was in little doubt that had Tottenham's David Ginola not lifted both the PFA and Players' awards, then Poyet would have been favourite. "It's what I've always believed," he said. "I think I was the first to point that out at the end of last season. If he can stay fit this season, he will be a good choice for the award." Some felt the shampoo salesman was somewhat fortunate but, as David might say, Poyet would be worth it.