Football: Race to keep up with flying squads

Special reserves: Manchester United and Chelsea, who meet at Old Trafford tonight, have quality cover in all areas
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The Independent Online
ASTON VILLA are the Premiership leaders and Arsenal the defending champions, in a better position than they were 12 months ago, but those shrewd chaps who lay the odds are in no doubt that tonight's meeting of Manchester United and Chelsea brings together the two teams most likely to win the title next May. Leading bookmakers offer United at nothing better than even money, with Chelsea at 5-2; Arsenal and Villa can both be backed at 6-1, though there has been no rush to bite off the hand that writes the book.

Among all the relevant factors, a deeply significant one appears to be the strength in depth that this evening's contestants can offer. As Graham Sharpe, of William Hill, puts it: "It's clearly influencing punters that should each of the clubs have two or three crucial injuries, United and Chelsea are going to be in a better position to bring in comparable replacements."

While Alex Ferguson and Gianluca Vialli have at their disposal half a dozen experienced internationals waiting in the wings, the understudies available to Arsene Wenger and John Gregory are not of that quality. They need to be, if only because these days they are far more likely to be called upon. In 1981, Villa won the championship using only 14 players; last season Arsenal needed 26.

Reserves can no longer be fading seniors or raw juniors jogging along in the Football Combination or the Central League, and waiting with varying degrees of patience for one of the regulars to collect an injury. Once five substitutes were introduced for League games, and seven for European competition (and how long before that becomes 11, as in the World Cup?) they became important members of a squad.

The need for depth in that squad was particularly felt by United and Chelsea four seasons ago, when each struggled in Europe because of regulations restricting the number of non-Englishmen. The formidable squads that the respective clubs have subsequently built up could be said to date from having to leave out Peter Schmeichel from a Champions' League game in Barcelona (United lost 4-0) and being forced to use Graham Rix, aged almost 37, in the Cup-Winners' Cup.

Vialli, in particular, has emphasised that he no longer believes in the concept of a "first team", rather in a group with largely equal (and high) ability, so that "somebody coming in can do as good a job as the person resting". That Continental notion is gaining ground, especially among clubs with greater commitments than just the Premiership. Ferguson, having pioneered the idea of fielding a completely different team in an irrelevant competition like the League Cup, said last week that he will allow his key players matches off between now and the European Cup games in March, at a time when more than half of the other quarter-finalists are refreshed by an official winter break.

Even those who prefer the British notion of finding a best side and sticking to it have to acknowledge the need for replacements due to injuries and the vastly increased number of suspensions. Next season, with the Champions' League expanded to 32 clubs, that need will be greater than ever.

So it could be argued that on any given match day, the strength of a club can best be gauged by looking along the line of substitutes sitting by the dug-out. At Chelsea or United, as the lists below show, that line is often sufficiently impressive to put opponents at a psychological disadvantage from the start. How many times have managers of lesser clubs been heard to say: "I looked at their subs' bench and it was frightening"? United's will certainly be the only one with three England squad members on it (Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Teddy Sheringham), plus a couple of Scandinavian or Dutch internationals as well. The Chelsea "second XI" listed would give most Premiership teams a decent game and beat a high proportion of them.

When Arsenal attempted to match their reserves against Chelsea's in a Worthington Cup tie recently, they received a nasty shock, now commemorated by T-shirts on sale in Fulham Broadway, with the figures 5-0 writ large. There is some young talent in the Arsenal shadow squad - as there needs to be, since some of the seniors are on borrowed time - and after they had achieved a typically defiant win away to Panathinaikos last week, Wenger could not resist claiming: "We have young players who are better than many people thought. The nucleus of the next generation is there." But the next generation was of no help in other Champions' League matches, when the first team was so badly depleted.

Villa, to be fair, started their development some way behind the other three clubs, their prime concern when Gregory took over 10 short months ago being to stay out of the Nationwide League. The new manager quickly recognised the need to strengthen his squad and in buying Dion Dublin, Paul Merson, Alan Thompson and Steve Watson has improved not only his first-choice team, but given a more formidable look to his subs' bench too.

Other clubs are belatedly following suit, some - Blackburn, Leeds, Tottenham and Liverpool for instance - finding there is more money available to them than there is quality in the marketplace. In the meantime, few are betting against United and Chelsea.

STRENGTH IN DEPTH: THE UNTOUCHABLES AND THEIR UNDERSTUDIES

MANCHESTER UTD

1st XI

1 Peter Schmeichel

24 Wes Brown

6 Jaap Stam

2 Gary Neville

3 Denis Irwin

7 David Beckham

16 Roy Keane

18 Paul Scholes

11 Ryan Giggs

9 Andy Cole

19 Dwight Yorke

2nd XI

17 Rai van der Gouw

31 John Curtis

21 Henning Berg

4 David May

5 Ronny Johnsen

15 Jesper Blomqvist

8 Nicky Butt

12 Phil Neville

14 Jordi Cruyff

20 Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

10 Teddy Sheringham

1st XI

1 Ed de Goey

17 Albert Ferrer

5 Franck Leboeuf

6 Marcel Desailly

14 Graeme Le Saux

16 Roberto di Matteo

11 Dennis Wise

8 Gustavo Poyet

3 Celestine Babayaro

10 Pierluighi Casiraghi

25 Gianfranco Zola

2nd XI

23 Dimitri Kharin

2 Dan Petrescu

12 Michael Duberry

21 Bernard Lambourde

29 Andy Myers

7 Bjarne Goldbaek

24 Eddie Newton

28 Jody Morris

22 Mark Nicholls

9 Gianluca Vialli

19 Tore Andre Flo

1st XI

1 David Seaman

2 Lee Dixon

14 Martin Keown

6 Tony Adams

3 Nigel Winterburn

15 Ray Parlour

17 Emmanuel Petit

4 Patrick Vieira

11 Marc Overmars

10 Dennis Bergkamp

9 Nicolas Anelka

2nd XI

13 Alex Manninger

7 Nelson Vivas

5 Steve Bould

20 Matthew Upson

22 David Grondin

19 Remi Garde

29 Paolo Vernazza

16 Stephen Hughes

8 Fredrik Ljungberg

12 Christopher Wreh

21 Luis Boa Morte

1st XI

1 Mark Bosnich

6 Steve Watson

15 Gareth Barry

4 Gareth Southgate

5 Ugo Ehiogu

3 Alan Wright

17 Lee Hendrie

7 Ian Taylor

10 Paul Merson

9 Stan Collymore

14 Dion Dublin

2nd XI

13 Michael Oakes

2 Gary Charles

20 Riccardo Scimeca

18 Fabio Ferraresi

23 David Hughes

8 Mark Draper

11 Alan Thompson

16 Simon Grayson

21 Darren Byfield

13 Julian Joachim

22 Darius Vassell

CHELSEA

ARSENAL

ASTON VILLA

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