Football: Vialli free to concentrate on one goal

Chelsea's manager, no longer playing, believes his side can end their 45-year title drought
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The Independent Online
"DESCHAMPS... FERRER... Petrescu... Wise... Poyet... Zola..." You could almost hear Motty purring as Chelsea knocked the ball about in training on Thursday. But then there was the footballing equivalent of a director crying "Cut" as Chris Sutton failed to read Gianfranco Zola's flick and in stepped Gianluca Vialli.

He jogged up to Sutton, spoke to him, then walked him towards his team- mates before checking, turning, and sprinting off behind him. He went back to Sutton and you guessed he was saying: "Like that, you see?". Vialli jogged back to the halfway line, took the ball, rolled it to Didier Deschamps and the process began again.

It was one of those occasions when you wished you had a video camera and one of those microphones that can pick up a cat mewing at a thousand paces. This was masterclass in movement given by the best off-the-ball runner in the modern game. Sutton, who can be a bit fractious, was simply listening and learning. So too Zola, not that he needed much tuition, and the reserve striking pair, Tore Andre Flo and Mikkel Forsell, who swapped with Sutton and Zola every five minutes.

Last year Vialli would have been among the strikers and Graham Rix would have been taking the session. Rix's current incarceration at Her Majesty's pleasure is not the only reason for Vialli taking a higher profile. He has given up playing and, though Chelsea will miss his ability on the pitch, they hope he can now emulate another great forward, Ted Drake, and lead the London club to an elusive second championship.

Since Drake's 1955 success Chelsea have rarely looked title contenders but they do now. Last year's team, which finished third, four points behind Manchester United, has been strengthened by the arrival of Sutton and Deschamps, while Mario Melchiot and Jes Hogh have replaced Michael Duberry and Andy Myers. With Gustavo Poyet fit again, and most players rested rather than coming off the back of a World Cup campaign, optimism abounds.

So, however, does expectation. Ruud Gullit may have been mischievous when he said Vialli had the players to win the title last year but failure this time would be more widely decried. The club are running a huge wage bill and expect a return on their investment.

"Last year was frustrating but not a failure for me," Vialli said. "We did not win anything but we improved and if we improve again we must win something this year."

Born into a wealthy family, Vialli grew up in a castle before joining his local team, Cremonese. Sampdoria (where he boldly filled Graeme Souness' jockstrap with itching powder) and Juventus, whom he captained to European Cup success, followed. Capped 59 times by Italy his name became a byword for preparation. Even when he was frozen out at Chelsea under Gullit he trained more extensively than anyone. Only his fondness for a smoke undermined his conditioning.

Now he has made the big sacrifice. "I would have liked to keep on playing, I would like to keep scoring goals, but I want to do the best for the club," he said. "It had to be done. I hope it is not going to be too hard, I hope management will give me as many joys as when I was a player.

"I can now concentrate on managing a lot more because I don't have to worry about my physical and mental condition. When we train I can step out and watch the players and give them more hints than I could do last season. I am in charge but not like a dictator. I still need Ray Wilkins at my side, and Eddie Niedzwiecki. We are a team, I am the boss but we work together.

"I made a lot of mistakes last year, I hope I am objective enough not to make them again. One was in the home match with Leicester. I still think the substitution [Duberry for Albert Ferrer] was correct but the way I told the back four to play [defend deep against Leicester's high balls] was not the right way. That was the end of our season, losing those two points [from 2-0 up Chelsea drew 2-2], our hopes went up in smoke.

"There is always something to learn, every match, every training session. How you speak with players is vital and you never stop learning how to do so, which words to use, when to be tough, when to be understanding, when to say nothing.

"You are always being judged but initially some people were less harsh because I was a beginner. Now they judge me normally but that does not worry me. I am my own hardest critic. I am never happy with myself, when I am that will be something."

Vialli may have his critics but he also has a lot of fans, especially in Italy where he is, said Giancarlo Galavotti, the London correspondent for La Gazzetta Dello Sport, "one of those managers who will always be in the mind should a big club want a new manager. At the moment everybody is happy with the manager they have but, after three months... who knows?

"Should Carlo Ancelotti struggle at Juventus they would certainly be interested in Vialli and that would be very tempting for him. He does not have all the coaching licences but Azeglio Vicini [the president of the Italian Coaches' Association who led the opposition against David Platt managing Sampdoria last season] said that Vialli is different, if he came to Serie A he could coach while getting his qualifications."

Not that Vialli is thinking of leaving. Having been renting since his arrival, as a player, in 1996, he has now bought a house near Buckingham Palace and had it refurbished to his exact specifications. He has a South African girlfriend who is happy in London and, noted Galavotti, "an attachment to Chelsea" whose fans have idolised him from the beginning.

There are some doubts about whether he can repay them. There is no obvious cover for Zola, who missed only one league match last year, and eight of the preferred starting XI are in their 30s. Vialli also remains relatively inexperienced but, say those close to him (Dennis Wise, the club captain. Gwyn Williams, the assistant manager), is "much more relaxed" now he is no longer trying to combine two jobs.

Chelsea have not won the first match of the season since 1994. Today's opponents, Sunderland, are just the sort of mid-ranking hard-to-beat side who have frustrated them at the Bridge before. They are also the type of opponent Chelsea have to beat it they are to win the title.

"We need a good start," said Vialli, adding: "It would be great to be the manager who won the championship again. It means you have done something. But you must not put too much attention on me - players win games, managers only lose them."