Football: Thoroughbreds romping the donkey derby

Chelsea's smooth European progress has revealed nothing about their true quality - yet
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The Independent Online
GIANLUCA VIALLI'S reaction to Chelsea's unexpected home defeat by West Ham last week was to insist in his ever-improving English that the Premiership is now "a two-horse race". So was the Gold Cup according to most pundits, which did not prevent a 16-1 shot winning it.

Outings at Villa Park this morning and Charlton on Saturday may determine whether Chelsea are going to steal up on the rails behind Manchester United and Arsenal or settle for an easy ride and make the European Cup-Winners' Cup engagement with Real Mallorca a greater priority.

Consciously or not, Vialli has, in one sense, been saving his best shots for the cups: the early goal that in effect confirmed Chelsea as aggregate winners of an undemanding quarter-final against Valerenga of Norway was his ninth of the season, not one of which has come in the Premiership. Reluctant to play twice in a week, he is unlikely to appear against Aston Villa, which is one reason why Gianfranco Zola was left out on Thursday and Tore Andre Flo - still short of form - was replaced at half-time.

A better clue will be revealed in the selection of a back four. Franck Leboeuf, Marcel Desailly and Albert Ferrer, outstanding this season and not risked in Oslo, should, according to the player- manager be fit to resume duty today. Aside from the nonsense about trying to keep their injuries secret last week when holding a three-goal lead against a modest bunch of Norwegian part-timers, what the second leg did emphasise was that trio's importance.

John Carew, the coltish teenager who is expected to move to Italy once the new Norwegian season is over, worried Chelsea's second strings from the start, and it was just as well that Graeme Le Saux - good news for England, this - should show no sign of being affected by his contretemps with Robbie Fowler and the subsequent hullabaloo.

Vialli's later claim that "we were always in control" was true of the overall tie - how could it be otherwise once a 5-0 lead had been established 15 minutes into Thursday's game? - but not of the match itself. Nothing much was under control when the centre- backs Michael Duberry and Bernarde Lambourde found Carew and his supporting players running at them or forming up for one of the coach Egil Olsen's carefully planned set pieces.

Olsen, who famously won the tactical war with Graham Taylor in Norway's World Cup victory over England on the same ground six years ago, was gracious in defeat. "It was about what we expected," he said. "We were a bit better than last time and they were not as good."

Vialli took his satisfaction from having reached another semi-final and seeing goals go in again after three successive blank days against Manchester United (twice) and West Ham. "It was important to score after those matches, in which we created a lot of chances but couldn't put the ball in," he said. "So I hope that problem is solved."

It was disingenuous, however, to suggest before Friday's semi-final draw that the three possible opponents - Lazio, Lokomotiv Moscow and Mallorca - were "all on the same level". Having been drawn against the Spaniards Chelsea should return to Villa Park on 19 May for a final against Lazio, to confirm that the last Cup-Winners' Cup really has been a two-horse race.

It would be a fitting occasion for Vialli's last game as a player, and an exciting climax is badly needed for a competition that has had even more than its share of donkeys this season than in previous years.

Public interest in the three major tournaments was illustrated again last week when the average attendance at the quarter-final second legs was just over 65,000 in the European Cup and 40,000 in the Uefa Cup while not one of the Cup-Winners' Cup ties attracted more than 18,000.

Talk of a renaissance in English football, whether real or imagined, should not be based on Chelsea's achievement in joining United as European semi-finalists: the equivalent of heaping praise on Paul Nicholls for winning a selling plate at Plumpton in addition to the Gold Cup.

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