Football: The real test still awaits Vialli

Alex Hayes says Chelsea's credentials are now on the line
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The Independent Online
ONE RESULT does not a season make. Or so Chelsea will be saying. But, following their disappointing performance in Thursday's Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final first leg against Real Mallorca, the Blues will be hoping that their European setback does not engender a trophy-less season.

It is difficult to predict how the players will react. Clubs can often be challenging for honours on several fronts only to end up with nothing, as Manchester United proved last season. Real Mallorca will certainly have the upper hand when they host the second leg, but Chelsea's prospects of retaining the last-ever Cup-Winners' Cup are not totally bleak. Tore Andre Flo's goal - his fifth as a substitute during the campaign - cancelled out Dani's first-half strike, and the Norwegian forward feels his side still have a good chance. "It will be hard for us down there, but at least it's 1-1 instead of 1-0," he said.

Chelsea's centre-half, Marcel Desailly, was equally upbeat. "We showed in the second half that we can play," he said. And the World Cup winner believes his team must remain calm. "Patience", he insisted. "They will have to come out and play. In their stadium they will have to play more, they will have to go forward and I think we will have many opportunities to do something good."

As far as their newest recruit, the coach Ray Wilkins, is concerned, Mallorca showed why they have one of the best defensive records in Europe. "They lived up to our expectations," he said. "They were very well organised and made it very difficult for us when we were attacking." Referring to the goal, Wilkins pointed out: "Dani's movement off the ball is exceptionally good and he did rather catch us cold."

The Stamford Bridge management may be playing a few mind games ahead of the return match, but one suspects that Gianluca Vialli was pushing the mastery of gamesmanship to its artistic limit when he said in his match programme: "I think the two clubs are quite similar in the way we are contending with the giants: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United and Arsenal. Both clubs have got a very charming and fascinating style."

The under-play of the season, surely. On a sporting level, both clubs might be evenly matched (as they wrestle for a cup and aim to clinch a Champions' League berth). But financially, they are in different stratospheres. A statistic which Vialli has conveniently ignored.

In fact, just as he has refused to accept that his European crusade is not still on course, Vialli has consistently played down his side's chances of winning the Premiership at home. "We're trying our best to keep up with Manchester United and Arsenal," he said. "But so many away games makes things a little difficult. It is strange that we have to play four League games in a row away from home." Such a schedule may seem harsh at this stage of the season, but it would be foolish to assume that Chelsea have thrown in the towel quite yet. On any front.

"Leeds are going very well and if we want to keep our position, which would allow us to enter the Champions' League preliminaries for the first time, we must keep up the hard work," Vialli said. Bearing in mind that David O'Leary's young team still have to play all three top-placed teams in the league, Vialli is justified in showing some concern.

The truth, however, is that Chelsea's main rivals for the title lie above them in the table. But with a game in hand over both Arsenal and Manchester United, and what looks like an easier run-in, Chelsea are actually well placed to lift the title.

While most inside Stamford Bridge talk only of trying to secure a place in next season's Champions' League, quite a few outside would not be too surprised if Chelsea achieved their double. And certainly their up-coming games, against Wimbledon in the Premiership today and Real Mallorca again in 11 days' time, will go a long way towards shaping the content of their trophy cabinet.