Football: Poyet the spark for blue flame

Every side needs an enforcer. Simon Turnbull assesses a premier pair of passion players
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The Independent Online
It Was at Anfield in September last year that a great swathe was cut through the middle of Chelsea's championship credentials. It was the rudest of awakenings for Ruud's boys. In third place at kick-off time, they were never in the frame again after Liverpool's exposure of their soft centre. Craig Burley, Roberto Di Matteo and Dennis Wise were engulfed by the red midfield tide; Chelsea sank 5-1. This afternoon's return, then, will gauge the bouyancy of this season's hopes for the boys in blue.With Gustavo Poyet amidships, there is good reason to expect evidence of a turning of the tide.

The Uruguayan has been the single stable influence in the Chelsea team this season. While Ruud Gullit has chosen to rotate his squad, detailing even Gianfranco Zola to bench duty, Poyet has been the one ever-present, rested though he was in the second half of Thursday night's Cup-Winners' Cup cruise by the Danube in Bratislava. "Gustavo was the kind of player we needed," Gullit said after Poyet's matchwinning performance against Newcastle at Stamford Bridge eight days ago. "He's like a Keane, a Batty, an Ince: a player who thinks about the team, not himself. He has good technique. He plays with passion and he has an attacking attitude. But what pleases me most is his character. He fits in well with the group."

Poyet slotted into the Chelsea set with immediate effect after his transfer, by freedom of contract, from Real Zaragoza. In the Umbro Cup at Goodison, he scored in the match in which Newcastle, and England, were shorn of Shearer. He showed that day too that he is more than a midfield enforcer; a tough-tackler, yes, but a strong runner and natural finisher. Jeff King, author of High Noon: Bobby Robson's Year at Barcelona and a first- hand follower of Spanish football, describes the man from Montevideo as: "More of a box-to-box midfielder, like the David Platt of old, than a typical ball winner in the Ince or Keane mould. He's a bit of a Martin Peters, too. He floats into the box and gets a lot of headed goals. He had the reputation of being the best header of a ball in Spain. He was very highly regarded here."

Poyet, 30 next month, spent seven years with Zaragoza. He crossed paths with Glenn Hoddle's Chelsea in the semi-finals of the Cup-Winners' Cup in 1995 and played in the Parc des Princes final in which Arsenal were famously Nayimed from the half-way line. That summer he was one of the leading lights in the Uruguay team which beat Brazil in the final of the Copa America. Even last season, in a Zaragoza side that flirted with relegation, Poyet was the Real thing in the Primera Liga. He scored 14 goals and was credited with 13 assists.

Spanish Stattos would point to the 12 bookings he collected, too, the bulk of them for dissent. Poyet was known as la radio in the Zaragoza dressing-room; he never shut up. When Barcelona visited the Romareda Stadium last season he attempted to lead his team-mates off the pitch in protest against a penalty award; there was a 10-minute delay before order was restored and Gica Popescu could take the kick. It was with great reluctance, though, that Zaragoza parted with their radio.

Three goals and the soundest of starts later, Poyet has quickly tuned into the Premiership wavelength. That much was loud and clear at Old Trafford two weeks ago. There was a time when Chelsea's midfield fancy Dans could have done with a good old kick up the back-side. The one Poyet received, courtesy of the frustrated Manchester United captain, was more of a back- handed, or right-footed, compliment. It confirmed his place alongside Roy Keane as a peer in the Premier League trenches.

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