Football: Three of the best, but there's only one winner

O'Leary's Leeds have headed the chasing pack. Next year they must close the gap.
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IF GIANLUCA VIALLI had been promised by a kind fairy before the season began that Chelsea would be beaten only three times in the Premiership, he could reasonably have expected to finish it celebrating the second championship success in the club's history.

After all, Chelsea's one previous championship-winning side, in the more happy-go-lucky days of 1955, lost almost a quarter of their matches - 10 out of 42. Only once since the Football League began 110 years ago had a team lost as few as three and not won the title: in 1979 Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest did so, only to finish a full eight points behind Liverpool because they drew so often. But it is now eminently possible that Vialli's "chaps" will make a piece of history by ending the season with only Coventry (in August), Arsenal (Janu- ary) and West Ham (March) having lowered their colours, yet not finishing in the top two.

The reason, of course, is that Arsenal and Manchester United have been steaming along at an even greater rate of knots, putting together astonishing sequences of victories interrupted by only the occasional draw, and not having lost since before Christmas. What Chelsea can claim without dispute is that the top three are in a league of their own; so much so that the Leeds manager David O'Leary said after losing 1-0 at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday and being forced to accept fourth place in the table: "We've won the other league and there's plenty of good teams in that."

Justifiably proud of what his youngsters and cut-price foreigners have achieved since he was confirmed as George Graham's successor last autumn, O'Leary is still a wise enough old owl to know that bridging the gap will, if anything, become more difficult, for financial as much as footballing reasons. Even if Chelsea finish third, they need only win a qualifying tie in August to pick up a share of the riches on offer in the European Champions' League, while Leeds must again take their chance in the much less rewarding Uefa Cup.

"The three teams have the best squads, quality squads and they've spent a lot of money," O'Leary said. "You just have to see the sort of people who come off the bench. Mr Bates, David Dein and Martin Edwards, if they could get by on only 11 players, they would. But you need a big squad. What we've all got to fear now is what will they add to it in the summer?

"I've got to do it another way, by developing a side. What's the point of me looking at a Desailly? You've got to look in a different market. Only time will tell if I'm given the backing, but in the next few years, we'll definitely give it a good go. We've done wonderfully well, with seven players under 21. I honestly thought when I took over that if we finished in the top eight and played some good football, that would be great."

Finishing in the top three and playing some good football would probably have done for Chelsea, too, in Vialli's first full season as player-manager. His regrets are that having progressed so far, in the Premiership and the Cup-Winners' Cup, they have not managed the final push. "Every time we made a little mistake, we have paid so heavily," he said. "Arsenal and United sometimes got away with mistakes and we never."

One of the mistakes that Arsenal may have survived - in the league, though not in Europe - was delaying the purchase of the extra striker that they needed so badly. Nwankwo Kanu has been a sensation, and could have been in the Champions' League had Wenger been able to secure him when the possibility was first mentioned. Chelsea, on the other hand, stuck with what they had, even after Pierluigi Casiraghi was so severely injured at West Ham in November. Coming so soon after Brian Laudrup's unexpected return to Denmark, that might have been the obvious time for a club so committed to a squad system to invest. Instead, Vialli (who has not scored a Premiership goal all season), declined to buy, then lost Gustavo Poyet, at the time his leading scorer, for three months.

Vialli has decided to keep playing for the time being, but now his compatriot Gianfranco Zola has announced that next season might be his last - not something that Chelsea can have been contemplating from him at the age of 32. So a striker must be the summer priority.

Easier said than signed. Chelsea now have the money, but claim to have found the market diminishing. Colin Hutchinson, their managing director, said: "The kind of players we want are also the type that Real Madrid, Milan and Lazio are chasing, so there's very little quality available."

That will be small consolation to Leeds, Aston Villa, Tottenham and the other wannabes, worried that just as the rich get richer, so Champions' League lucre will make the big three bigger.