Football: Vialli a singular team man

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IN THE midst of the maelstrom of acrimony, accusation and counter- accusation as Mike Reed whistled full-time at the Manor Ground, one character rose, shaven head and muscled shoulders above all the fury. Stripped to the waist and tattooed, he looked almost gladiatorial. Yet, underneath was a man of diplomacy whose skills could, if ever lost to football, be utilised by the United Nations, as he immediately consoled the Oxford manager Malcolm Shotton rather than gorging himself on the pleasures of his FA Cup reprieve.

In terms of getting themselves out of jail, Chelsea's escape on Monday night was the equivalent of breaking out of Alcatraz and enjoying a sumptuous meal on Fisherman's Wharf on the same night. Yet, it couldn't detract from the immense presence of Gianluca Vialli, who, as he approaches the end of his first year in charge at Stamford Bridge, is quietly confounding the sceptics' view that rookie managers and nice guys don't win prizes, while also contradicting the argument that no successful gaffer can perform with elan on the field.

Not too many Premiership managers would have been honest or ingenuous enough to concede after such an emotional FA Cup tie: "They played better and should have gone through." But that has been the manner of the man ever since the day when raised eyebrows and cynical smiles on both sides of the Channel greeted his installation as player-manager, following the controversial departure of Ruud Gullit, the man who had convinced him to end his playing career in England.

Too little experience of English football, language difficulties, continuing to play while managing; they were all hurled at him as perils to confound that intense Latin pride. Typical was the former Milan coach Fabio Capello, who said: "You wouldn't trust a learner driver with a Formula One car."

Yet Ken Bates had looked no further than the management potential which existed in-house. "When we appointed Luca there were an awful lot of scoffers here and abroad," he said this week. "But today, if you'll forgive the appropriate saying, `Even the ranks of Tuscany could scarce forbear to cheer'."

Admittedly, the typical language down at the Bridge tends to be less Lord Macaulay and more: "Now you're gotta believe us, we're gonna win the League..." after an unbeaten run of 21 games. But the hint of triumphalism is understandable, with three trophies still in the offing, even though Vialli's present view is: "I cannot say `no, we won't do it', but I don't care. Even if we failed in all three, I don't mind, as long as we have done our best."

The contrast with Gullit's reign is manifest, both in preparation and on match-days. "The transition was seamless," said Bates. "The first thing he said was: `I want to bring back happiness and harmony to the dressing- room'. And that speaks for itself. If you look at the way Chelsea play today, even if they perform badly they play for each other. That's something that's been missing in the past."

Bates added pointedly: "Quite frankly, three or four years ago we would have lost at Oxford. We would have given up. But our lot didn't on Monday. Luca consults very closely. He's very close to Rixy [the coach Graham Rix] and Gwyn Williams [Vialli's assistant] and his fitness trainer. He's a team leader rather than a solitary person."

Intriguingly, Vialli's is no typical tale of an escape from the gutters of Poverty Piazza, Cremona, to his present residence in Quality Street, which comes in the form of a luxury apartment off Sloane Square, in Chelsea, where he lives with his girlfriend of 10 years, Giovanna.

But for all the showmanship and the playboy image of the son of a millionaire builder from the wealthy region of Lombardy - one year opting for dyed blond hair before it became fashionable, another making his trademark the McEnroe head-band - he was picking the brains of Enzo Bearzot, Giovanni Trapattoni, the Juventus coach Marcello Lippi, and Gullit. It was Lippi who said of Vialli: "Luca will take to management as naturally as a baby suckles from its mother."

So it has proved, with Vialli founding the new dynasty at Stamford Bridge on the Juventus model of his playing days, the tangible rewards already being the Coca-Cola Cup, the European Cup Winners' Cup the European Super Cup.

"So technically we're the champions of Europe, and we're first in the League," declared his chairman, before adding: "Luca's a winner; he's very dedicated and an inspirational leader. We were observing him on Monday night warming up and he was doing more pre-match exercise than anybody else. He really pushes himself. In fact, Susanna [Bates' partner] said to me: `He'd better pack it in soon or he'll be exhausted before they kick off'. For 35 years of age, he's remarkably fit. I'm sure that when he took his shirt off to come off the pitch, many women in the audience would have swooned at his physique."

That fitness is derived - apart from his advocacy of regular love-making - from a regime planned by the former Juventus No 2 fitness coach, Antonio Pintus, who was summoned with a brief that Vialli wanted Chelsea to be physically the best team in the League, having conceded eight goals in the final 10 minutes of games last season. As Giancarlo Galavotti of the Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport, who knows the player-manager well, maintained: "Zola was a poor, pathetic shadow last year and he has been reconditioned by Vialli's training programme." Gwyn Williams added: "He's a perfectionist. He wants everybody organised and on the ball.

"He's different from Ruudi, who I got on with as well, but it's like having different wives. You've got to understand what they want and what they don't want. Ruudi never used to train that much, and there was a day off with him.

"With Luca, there are virtually no weekdays off. I think the only days the players had off last season were 5 November and 17 December."

On Friday, four days after that cruel denial of Oxford's FA Cup ambitions, Vialli was thumping footballs into the net on a remote pitch at Chelsea's training headquarters, alongside Heathrow Airport, just as he did in a career which has brought him winner medals from all three European finals. Despite the proximity of the Alitalia check-in, more consideration is given to setting an example to his team than jet-setting back home.

"Luca is never happy with coasting along, making do. He wants the best," explained Galavotti. "He has conquered the dressing-room because he demands more of himself than he demands of others. That's why he has been such an instant success."

Yet it could have been an inauspicious introduction for the man for whom Juventus supporters clamoured to be appointed their next manager, even though Carlo Ancelotti has already been officially named as Lippi's replacement.

Deep ends do not come much more shark-infested than the one into which Vialli immediately plunged on that February night. The second leg of a semi-final Coca-Cola Cup tie with Arsenal, with Chelsea 2-1 down from the first. They won 3-1, though what contribution was played by the half- glass of champagne for each player before kick-off - to celebrate "the start of a new adventure" - nobody will ever know.

Later, he was to reveal that, even during that first match, he was concerned that the pressure of management could prove too much for him.

But this was no Lord Luca, about to do a disappearing act. Just under a year on, as he faced the media, speaking quietly and authoritatively, he issued the perfect response to that fear. "Yes, I'm under pressure, but I'm the happiest man in the world. I'm healthy, wealthy and handsome, as you can see," he jested with reporters.

Not that there haven't been problems with the rotational system originally favoured by Gullit and of which he, too, was a victim. Perhaps he can reflect on the words of John F Kennedy, who said during the Cuban missile crisis: "I guess this is the week I earn my salary."

For Vialli, it will be the next 16 weeks, during which he must rotate a squad diminished by injuries to Tore Andre Flo, Pierluigi Casiraghi and Gustavo Poyet, in which he will earn his money. Still, after Monday, you can't help but believe that just about anything is possible for Lucky Luca.