Football: Robson seeking poetic justice

Chelsea 1 Newcastle United 0
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The Independent Online
Where there is discord, may we bring harmony;

Where there is error, may we bring truth;

Where there is doubt, may we bring faith;

Where there is despair, may we bring hope.

BOBBY ROBSON, being the son of a Durham miner, is unlikely to be a fan of Margaret Thatcher but the prayer she borrowed from St Francis of Assisi, and proclaimed outside No 10 on the day she became Prime Minister, would also serve as an appropriate manifesto for a newly appointed football manager.

Discord, error, doubt and despair have combined rather more obviously than Newcastle United's back four so far this season but Robson, in his first dozen days at St James' Park, has made a decent fist at suggesting they may yet be replaced by more promising principles.

Faith is always present in Newcastle supporters but, at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, there were signs that, along with hope and harmony, it may be returning to the players' minds as well. Equally important, the individual errors which have plagued the team's defending were absent.

Unfortunately for Newcastle, Graham Poll, the referee, was afflicted instead, awarding Chelsea the least obvious of the match's three penalty claims and thus enabling them to inflict the sixth defeat in seven matches on Newcastle.

However, there were signs that the elusive first victory since April may not be far away. Indeed, if it does not arrive in Bulgaria, in the Uefa Cup in midweek, it will probably do so at home to the even-more-hapless Sheffield Wednesday on Sunday.

A new defensive system, incorporating a sweeper, man-markers and wing- backs, denied Chelsea a clear shot at goal - the penalty apart - for well over an hour despite the wing-backs being manifestly unsuitable. In midfield, Rob Lee, though still recovering fitness, Gary Speed and Kieron Dyer showed the desire to lead a recovery.

The front pair were less impressive, only troubling Chelsea once, late in the first period, when Duncan Ferguson's imperious header brought an equally fine save from Ed De Goey. Otherwise he looked unfit and one-dimensional while Alan Shearer was poor again.

Yet here, too, there is cause for hope. Robson, unlike Ruud Gullit, or, dare one say it, Kevin Keegan's England, appears to know how to get the best from Shearer both in the context of the team and the individual. Wingers are on the agenda; initially the injured Stephen Glass, but do not rule out a new signing, possibly the Finn, Joonas Kolkka, who had a fine season under Robson at PSV Eindhoven last year. So, too, is an adjustment to Shearer's game.

"We had a long chat last night and I have worked with him in training," said Robson of Shearer. "He has been playing too much with his back to goal. He has got into this static position where he backs into defenders and concentrates on winning free-kicks. I want him to go and meet the ball and be on the half-turn. If the defender can see his number, he's in the wrong position.

"We need to build up his power so he can go on those diagonal runs and not just down the gullies. I'm confident we can see him back at his best." Strong words and more specific advice than one suspects Shearer has had for some time. Will he listen? He had better, local hero or not. Ferguson is a possible alternative to Shearer as well his putative partner.

Robson intends to work mainly with the players he has, of which there would be plenty if it were not for the extensive injury list - nine including Steve Howey, of whom Robson said: "He's as good as Tony Adams but is out long-term."

Newcastle still fielded 10 full internationals, as did Chelsea though they, too, were not at full strength, having rested Didier Deschamps for the midweek visit of Milan and left Dan Petrescu and Gustavo Poyet on the bench. As a consequence, despite the interplay of Dennis Wise and Gianfranco Zola, the passing was neither as slick nor as imaginative as usual. Chris Sutton did play but continues to look the odd man out and the finishing remains a concern. This was the third 1-0 Premiership win in succession and, while only Leicester have scored against them, Chelsea are yet to face a Dwight Yorke or a Dennis Bergkamp - or, until Wednesday, an Andriy Shevchenko or a George Weah.

That will be a very different match. On Saturday, much of the play was frantic and Robson later commented on the pace, power and lack of time afforded players on the ball. Though only a minority of players were English, it underlined how the qualities that make the Premiership attractive also hinder the development of the national team.

Neither goalkeeper had a shot to save before Franck Lebouef scored from the spot after Gary Speed had overdone his marking job on Celestine Babayaro from a Zola free-kick. Two minutes later Zola might have had another penalty when tripped by his marker, Warren Barton, but, as in the second half when De Goey felled Dyer, Poll waved play on.

Tommy Wright made a couple of good saves as Newcastle left gaps as they pushed forward late on but, while victory was deserved, a larger margin would have been unjust.

"I said to the players afterwards: `Give me what you gave me today - I can work on that and we'll get out of trouble'," added Robson. Not quite as poetic as the words of St Francis but then, should Robson's players follow his strictures, they should have no need of prayers.

Goal: Lebouef (pen 39) 1-0.

Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Ferrer, Desailly, Lebouef, Babayaro; Goldbaek (Petrescu, h-t), Morris, Wise, Le Saux (Poyet, 58); Zola, Sutton (Flo, 70). Substitutes not used: Hogh, Cudicini (gk).

Newcastle United (3-5-2): Wright; Goma, Dabizas, Barton; Solano (Hughes, 87), Lee (Maric, 77), Dyer, Speed, Domi; Shearer, Ferguson (Robinson, 74). Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), McClen.

Referee: G Poll (Tring).

Bookings: Chelsea: Wise, Lebouef, Ferrer. Newcastle: Solano, Barton, Dabizas, Dyer.

Man of the match: Wise.

Attendance: 35,092.