Football: Vialli short of a quality money cannot buy

PREMIERSHIP England's Champions' League representatives are found wanting on their return to the bread and butter game; Watford 1 Chelsea 0
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SO MUCH for strength in depth. So much for rotation. "I need time to think about why we played so well against Milan and so poorly here," Gianluca Vialli said. Not, in Vialli's opinion, Chelsea's lowest point since he succeeded Ruud Gullit as manager but certainly a performance way below what he has come to expect.

No easy matches in the Premier League, that Vialli knows. So, too, does he understand the difficulties that can arise when players are required to cast aside their dancing shoes and turn out in the wellies. In a word, motivation.

If not the dawning of reality (Vialli had already expressed concern over fixture congestion), Chelsea's 1-0 loss to Watford's well-organised terriers and the point Wimbledon took from Manchester United at Old Trafford suggest that the strain imposed by an expanded Champions' League may be more than they and Arsenal can comfortably bear.

What was it that Ken Bates wrote in the programme for Chelsea's debut? "Pinch yourselves to see whether it's true." The truth may have been in a defeat three days later, one to question Vialli's confident assertion that as practically every dressing-room peg at Stamford Bridge is occupied by a world-class player switches in personnel can be made without disturbing rhythm.

So where was the underlying strength that caused Watford's manager, Graham Taylor, to burn the midnight oil when reflecting on the permutations Vialli had available? Six changes from the Milan match, Frank Leboeuf and Dennis Wise forced out by injuries, Gianfranco Zola and Dan Petrescu rested on the bench. "Naturally, we gave Zola a lot of thought," Taylor said, "but I had to account for the possibility that he might not start."

What Taylor could not have expected was Chelsea's nervous response to reports emphasising his team's spirit, urgency and honest endeavour. "To be fair Watford made us play in a different way," Vialli said bleakly.

He can say that again. Instead of the sharp passing and movement their supporters have come to expect Chelsea frequently humped the ball forward in attempts to release Chris Sutton and Tore Andre Flo and get centres into them.

Reputations die hard but since Taylor's second coming at Vicarage Road has seen an advancement in style from the days when the ball should have been taken into protective custody, what were Chelsea thinking about?

Maybe, tomorrow's visit to Hertha Berlin where the problems will be different again. Maybe the realisation that a formula has to be found to protect their most influential players, especially Zola - who is at the veteran stage - from burn-out.

Zola's importance to Chelsea was emphasised by his effect on the game after replacing Flo in the 61st minute, a move that caused Taylor to order a tactical adjustment. With Petrescu also on for Bjarne Goldbaek, there was a more familiar look about Chelsea's football, but Watford held on gamely to the lead Allan Smart had given them four minutes earlier after good work by the new recruit Nordin Wooter and Paul Robinson.

Vialli's first conclusion was that Chelsea had not shown enough patience. He also could have said that pairing Flo and Sutton for the first time was no answer to problems that have grown up in the goalscoring department.

Made captain for the day - "I thought it would tell everyone that I have faith in him," Vialli said - Sutton was not given an inch by Robert Page who formed a terrific central defensive partnership with Mark Williams.

The closest Chelsea came to an equaliser was Zola's header into the side netting, their frustration evident in the demolishing kick Didier Deschamps aimed at an advertising board. Not a game that appealed to his instincts.

For Taylor there was the satisfaction of another examination passed, further encouragement for his belief that survival in the Premiership is possible.

Vialli looked downcast. There are hard days ahead and he knows it.

Goal: Smart (57) 1-0.

Watford (4-3-3): Chamberlain; Gibbs, Williams, Page, Robinson; Hyde, Palmer, Easton; Wooter (Wright, 65); Smart (Mooney, 80; Ngonge, 86), Kennedy. Substitutes not used: Bonnot, Day (gk).

Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Ferrer, Hogh, Desailly, Le Saux; Goldbaek (Petrescu, 61), Deschamps, Morris, Ambrosetti; Flo (Zola, 61), Sutton. Substitutes not used: Lambourde, Wolleaston, Cudicini (gk).

Referee: M Reed (West Midlands.

Bookings: Watford: Page, Hyde. Chelsea: Le Saux, Sutton.

Man of the match: Page.

Attendance: 21,244.