Football: Rest is best for Hughes and company

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The Independent Online
Aston Villa 0 Chelsea 2

Gareth Southgate's admiration for Chelsea's unconventional squad system, which he articulated in a way which left no doubt that he considered Aston Villa to be lacking comparable depth, was promptly vindicated in the most discomfiting fashion by Mark Hughes.

The England defender began the afternoon by issuing a thinly veiled threat that Villa's leading players might leave unless the club matched their ambition. He finished it on the receiving end of a Hughes cameo which amply justified Ruud Gullit's mould-breaking deployment of resources.

While contemporaries pay lip service to the concept of the squad, Chelsea's player-manager is never afraid to change a winning team. Sometimes the adjustments are tactical. More often the intention is to rest players - rest as in recuperate, not as in drop - and Hughes is the chief beneficiary.

On his 34th birthday, the Welsh warhorse looked as fresh and fearsome as ever. As much as the goal which put Chelsea in control - a free header, like Tore Andre Flo's second - the stitches he required following a clash of heads with Ugo Ehiogu testified to his renewed appetite for the fray.

"Everyone goes on about my age," Hughes said afterwards, "but I still feel as strong and eager as ever. I'm actually enjoying my football more than at any time, even when I was at Manchester United. I used to spend most of my time chasing full-backs and didn't have enough energy to do the business where it matters, in the box."

To his relief Hughes is no longer expected to "charge round like a wild thing". Gullit is convinced Hughes is sharper because he is not playing every match. Much as his innate professionalism meant he wanted to, "he realises it's working well for him". Besides, the club had enough players of "a certain quality" to be able to make changes without weakening the side.

Which is precisely where Southgate believes Villa have fallen down. Coming from the captain, a player renowned for thoughtful diplomacy, his comments in a radio interview were tantamount to planting a time bomb in Villa Park's corridors of power.

Southgate had signed a new contract only after receiving assurances that Villa would build on successive top-five finishes by buying top-class players. That had not happened "to the extent I would've liked", he said, adding pointedly: "There will be a few players who, if the club are still in the [present] position come the end of the season, would have to think long and hard about what we're doing."

Whether he spoke for Villa's other principal assets - Ehiogu, Mark Bosnich and Dwight Yorke, who missed a penalty here when the game was goalless - we can not be sure. Yet, by citing the example of Chelsea, Southgate was giving a coded warning that Doug Ellis and Brian Little must enter the transfer market.

"If you don't have competition for places, then players not at the top of their form might be left in the side for longer than normal. Their players may not like being left out, or rested, but you can't deny that squad rotation works for them."

November promises to be a critical month for Southgate and company, and for the relationship between chairman and manager. Victory in the Uefa Cup tomorrow would help to restore Villa's momentum and confidence. The current team, however, are better equipped to dig in for the 0-0 draws achieved at Bilbao and Arsenal than to go out and create chances.

Hughes, meanwhile, need not be unduly alarmed if he is asked to sit out the Cup-Winners' Cup return with Tromso on Thursday. Chelsea, lying fourth with a game in hand, may want to ensure that his threat is unveiled to striking effect when they resume the Premiership pursuit at home to West Ham on Sunday.

Goals: Hughes (39) 0-1; Flo (83) 0-2.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Oakes; Ehiogu, Southgate, Scimeca; Charles, Draper, Grayson, Nelson (Taylor, 60), Wright; Joachim (Milosevic, 60), Yorke. Substitutes not used: Staunton, Curcic, Ghent (gk).

Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Sinclair, Leboeuf, Myers, Babayaro; Petrescu (Clarke, 72), Morris (Di Matteo, 64),Newton, Nicholls; Zola (Flo, 80), M Hughes. Substitutes not used: Granville, Hitchcock (gk).

Referee: S Dunn (Bristol). Booking: Villa Milosevic.

Attendance: 39,372.

Man of the match: Hughes.