Football: Raging finale at the Bridge

Strachan sent off as red mist descends on the dugout before Di Matteo delivers a bolt from the blue; Chelsea 2 Coventry City 1 Leboeuf 45, Di Matteo 90 Huckerby 9 Half-time: 1-1 Attendance: 34,869
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The Independent Online
GORDON STRACHAN sent from the touchline, a full-scale scuffle between the two benches, the Chelsea kitman booked. Chelsea had every reason to reflect on the old sporting adage that staying at the top is twice as hard as getting there. For long periods, the championship pretenders were outplayed by a desperately committed Coventry side, but two goals - in injury time at the end of each half, by Franck Leboeuf and Roberto Di Matteo - secured Chelsea a victory that they scarcely deserved.

Not that anyone inside Stamford Bridge will worry too much about the quality. The points are safe and the London side's hex banished for another season. Chelsea's hard core is being severely tested and if they go on to win the championship for the first time in 44 years then this fractious afternoon might prove one of the most telling points of the season.

Though total fluency eluded them for long periods, Chelsea have unearthed an unfashionable resilience, a far more precious commodity at this stage of the season.

Strachan, the Coventry coach, made light of the incident 10 minutes from time which saw both entourages involved in an unseemly bout of pushing and shoving outside the dug-outs. "It was like a Monty Python sketch," he said. "Lots of prodding and pushing." But the beaks at the Football Association might not see the funny side of such a public and unnecessary fracas.

The explosion was sparked off by an injury to George Boateng in the Chelsea penalty area. The Dutchman was still lying on the ground injured as Strachan caught the ball on the touchline. In his haste to get the ball back into play Terry Byrne, Chelsea's assistant physio, tried to wrestle it from Strachan's hands. The Coventry bench leapt into the breach and Chelsea's followed suit.

"I knew what was coming and disappeared," said Strachan, though his innocence was not quite proven. When the referee Jeff Winter appeared, he ordered Strachan to the stands and booked Aaron Lincoln, the Chelsea kitman, into the bargain. "I was worried about my player who was down injured and I was holding the ball when I was barged from behind," Strachan said.

In truth, his claims of innocence were thoroughly disingenuous. The little Scot's feud with the fourth official over his persistent coaching outside the designated technical area had set the tone for rising tension between the two benches. "I've never punched anyone, never kicked anyone in my career, now I'm getting a ferocious reputation for stepping a yard outside my box," he said. "I hope my children don't copy my terrible example."

The brawl marred an otherwise absorbing encounter, much more physical than Chelsea had anticipated. Without Michael Duberry and Marcel Desailly, Chelsea had to reshuffle their central defence, bringing in Bernard Lambourde to partner Leboeuf. But it did not take long for the largely untried pairing to suffer from the lightning striking of Darren Huckerby. Eleven goals in their last two games, six of them to Huckerby, had advertised Coventry's confidence, but with five strung across the midfield and Huckerby on his own up front, Strachan had clearly set his side out for an afternoon of cat and mouse. An early goal was part of the perfect blueprint and, in the 10th minute, one of simple construction and inevitable execution silenced Stamford Bridge.

In his usual quiet and efficient way, Gary McAllister had already established a hold on midfield. But Chelsea made the mistake of giving the Coventry captain time and space to pick out an exquisite pass to Huckerby. The ball caught Chelsea's defence momentarily square and the hottest striker in the league needed little further invention to burst through before lobbing the ball gently over Ed De Goey and into the net. If there was a sense of deja vu in the Chelsea camp, it was not misplaced. Last season, Chelsea had lost in the opening match of the season at Coventry, and then suffered a severe fright at home before winning the return encounter.

The sight of the City slickers seems to incense Coventry and but for two clear misses by Stephen Froggatt towards the end of the first half, the visitors could have doubled their lead. Huckerby, a constant threat throughout, once again turned Leboeuf before dinking a cross to the far post. Froggatt's header sneaked past the upright. Moments later, after a delightful one-two with McAllister, Froggatt rounded De Goey only to ram his left-foot shot against the woodwork. Strachan was inconsolable. Even more so, on the stroke of half-time, as Leboeuf was given a free passage through the outskirts of the Coventry defence and accepted the invitation to thump a 25-yard shot past Magnus Hedman. The Frenchman had scored his first goal for the club against the same opponents.

That, the Chelsea fans believed, was that. Yet it was Coventry who continued to play the more intricate and purposeful football and Chelsea, with Dennis Wise and Gianluca Vialli particularly profligate, struggled to find any rhythm.

But, for all Chelsea's possession, Coventry always looked the more likely winners. Whether the events on the touchline distracted them is open to question. Strachan might reflect when he has cooled down that the four minutes of injury time added on by the fourth official had been largely due to his antics.

As the final seconds ticked away, Di Matteo drove a loose ball high into the Coventry net to send Chelsea on their way to a sunshine break in Tenerife as Premier League leaders.

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