Football: Subtlety serves Chelsea better than brawn

Gianfranco Zola's skills looked the most promising weapon against Milan in game controlled by men of experience.
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The Independent Online
THE LESSON was relatively straightforward, or so it seemed. On Wednesday night at Stamford Bridge it was Gianfranco Zola, not much over five feet tall and with a dancer's feet, who hit the post with one shot and should have been beaten Christian Abbiati with another which gave the Milan goalkeeper just enough of a chance to get his hand on it. And it was Tore Andre Flo, almost a foot taller and considerably less agile, who did little more than put a couple of headers wide.

So the lesson must have been that Milan's three defenders, all internationals of great experience, can be beaten not by a blunt instrument but by skill and imagination. Zola, naturally, was operating with his motivation -never in question, even at the worst of times - dialled up to the maximum. But he needed help, and he needed it from someone who operates in his wavelength.

Flo is an enigma. No one who was in the Stade Velodrome when Norway played Brazil last summer will forget the resourcefulness with which he took on Mario Zagallo's entire defence. He held the ball, he ran with it, he took on two or three men at a time, and he scared them stiff. In the last 10 minutes he scored a fine equaliser and then secured the penalty which gave his side a brave and thoroughly unexpected victory. From time to time he has given hints of such form in a Chelsea shirt, but on too many occasions he has flattered to deceive.

Wednesday night's European Cup tie was one of them. In such company, he looked merely clumsy. But when, with five minutes to go, he was finally substituted, the replacement was Chris Sutton, a player of similar inclinations whose ring-rustiness since his transfer from Blackburn in the summer is indicated by his tally of exactly one goal this season, and that against Skonto Riga.

It was tempting to wonder what Mickael Forssell, the 18-year-old Finn, might have made of the opportunity. From what little we have been allowed to see of him, Forssell possesses tremendous technical gifts and considerable confidence.

It is true, however, that experience was the underlying motif of the game, from Chelsea's Desailly, Deschamps, Zola and Ferrer through Milan's Maldini, Costacurta, Albertini and Bierhoff. There was an enormous amount of footballing wisdom on display, sharpened by the kind of unquenchable desire that sustains the careers of the truly great players long after they have secured more trophies than their mansions can hold and more money than they will ever need. So it would have been even nicer to see a young firecracker thrown in to make the veterans jump about a bit.

Nevertheless, Vialli could be proud of his team's performance, particularly since this represented the club's first appearance in the competition. The fact that few debutants can have looked so self-confident in the face of such a test is a tribute to the policy of buying players who have already proved themselves at this level, even though one or two of them may be marginally past their best.

They certainly made an impact on Milan. "Chelsea started very well," Abbiati commented afterwards, "and their crowd was like an extra man on the field. That was a big surprise to me. Those fans are certainly impressive. But the important thing was that we came away with a good result."

"We couldn't hold on to the ball," Demetrio Albertini said, "so we had to spend most of our time fighting to get it back. In the second half we created some good moves, but I have to tell you the truth, which is that in the first half we were in trouble."

The 2-2 draw in Istanbul between Galatasaray and Hertha Berlin in the other Group H match means that next Wednesday's second round of matches will be even more passionately contested, particularly by the home teams, who will be anxious to maximise their advantage. Chelsea travel to Germany to meet a team coached by one former Nottingham Forest player, Jurgen Rober, and featuring a second, Bryan Roy, in their squad, alongside two recently acquired former Bayern Munich players, the Iranian striker Ali Daei and the German defender Thomas Helmer, who arrived via Sunderland on loan.

A point from the visit of Milan was an acceptable beginning, but they will need to bring something away from Berlin's Olympic Stadium if they are to sustain a belief in their ability to make the sort of progress that would justify Vialli's faith and the club's investment.

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