Football: Vanquished Vialli concedes title

Chelsea 0 West Ham United 1 Kitson 75 Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 34,822
Click to follow
AN FA CUP exit at the hands of Manchester United could be excused as unfortunate. Yesterday, it might be suggested that Chelsea were downright careless. Certainly, the last four days in Gianluca Vialli's season have left many to re-evaluate the true potency of the Londoners, not least the player-coach himself who immediately after this disappointing London derby, won by a 76th-minute Paul Kitson goal, conceded the championship.

"It's beyond us now. It is a two-horse race between Arsenal and Manchester United and now we must do our best to finish the season in our best possible position," he declared. "The players are very disappointed because our hopes of winning the title are fading away." The Italian has never been one for mind games, but you do suspect that he is merely attempting to relieve the pressure on his players.

His pessimism does appear a trifle premature. Seven points adrift of United, the Londoners still have a game in hand, though that will count for nothing if they do not quickly start to find the net.

It may have been only Chelsea's second defeat at Stamford Bridge, and their third Premiership loss this season, but more significant has been their failure to score in two games against Manchester United and now being held on a third occasion, by a team who, frankly, should have not provided too severe an examination for any side with title aspirations.

"It doesn't worry me," Vialli responded to the dearth of goals. "It pisses me off. It was a reasonable performance and we are creating chances, as we did against Manchester United, but we are lacking luck and we can't score. But if we keep the confidence high we will."

Gianfranco Zola has scored only three goals in 18 games - and this the man some had mooted as a possible Footballer of the Year - and Vialli is, no doubt, being forced to rue his own sending-off, which has deprived him a performing interest in the last three games.

Yet, before the game, Harry Redknapp almost had the violins playing when assessing his team's chances. "I've been thinking of a way to play against Chelsea all week and it's not easy, believe me. You can't see a weakness there at all," he had said.

Afterwards, it all sounded just a little too much like Harry's bluff as his men coped reasonably comfortably with a lightweight home attack, in which Tore Andre Flo, recently returned from injury, appeared below his optimum form. A major contributory factor was another assured display by England's Rio Ferdinand, despite an ankle injury in the first half, and his senior partner Neil Ruddock.

In fact, Redknapp did formulate a successful strategy. As cunning plans go, it was almost Baldrickian in its simplicity. Except this one worked as West Ham, instead of holding out for a draw in the second half, went for the jugular of their illustrious rivals. It clearly unsettled Chelsea, and though Kitson's goal was forced home without ceremony - indeed it only just crept over the line - it was a success just about deserved. "I thought that if we're still in there at 0-0 with 20 minutes to go, I'd push Trevor Sinclair up front and go for it - and it worked a treat," said Redknapp, with the pointed addendum. "I'm just a soppy old English manager."

He added: "I made up my mind last night, lying in bed with my wife." He responded to the laughter by explaining: "Well, if you had a husband as ugly as me you'd want to talk about football, wouldn't you? Anyway, she said, `Yes, Harry, push Sinclair up'."

With Paolo Di Canio absent, injured - although according to the Hammers' manager, before the game the Italian had made a point of seeking out fourth official Paul Alcock, whom he had felled at Hillsbrough - and Eyal Berkovic on the bench, Redknapp deployed a three-man attack, spearheaded by Kitson, who worked tirelessly for the cause.

The Hammers might have secured an interval lead when Marc Vivien Foe lashed the ball home three minutes before the break, only to find referee Steve Lodge had adjudged him guilty of an infringement. It was to prove only a temporary reverse.

With Steve Lomas and Frank Lampard making their presence felt in midfield, West Ham continued to threaten on the break and it was not entirely unexpected when they scored 14 minutes from time. Marc Keller's free-kick wrought chaos in the Chelsea rearguard and when Foe headed on, Kitson forced home only his second goal of the season. Goalkeeper Ed De Goey believed he had stopped the ball on the line but a linesman didn't concur and, in contrast to the first-half decision, Lodge allowed the goal to stand. The goal wasn't pretty; in fact, Redknapp couldn't even make out who got the final touch, but he won't concern himself about that.

All Chelsea, who started without Franck Leboeuf and were then deprived of Marcel Desailly, had to show for an exhibition that was all beauty in conception but lacking the final few brushstrokes that make a masterpiece were a first-half attempt by Flo which scurried the wrong side of Shaka Hislop's post, another from Celestine Babayaro cleared off the line by Ferdinand, and an effort from Bjarne Goldbaek which took a wicked deflection off Ruddock but failed to trouble the goalkeeper.

Flo and Zola might also have profited from chances late on, but you knew by then that this was not the Blues' week, let alone their afternoon. "Chelsea are a fantastic side, and I'm a big fan," said Redknapp. "But it will be tough for them now. As a betting man, I'd have to go for the other two."