GIANLUCA VIALLI may not take the Worthington Cup seriously as a manager but as a player it appears to mean as much as any of the many competitions he has graced. Having chosen a team with second-string players to defend the trophy last night he led from the front, capping a master class in movement and running with a well-taken hat-trick.
However, he also involved himself in row with the Aston Villa bench and earned a yellow card for dissent as another ever-committed player, Dennis Wise, was sent off for a two-footed tackle on Darren Byfield.
"It was a bad tackle. He deserved to go," said Graham Rix, the coach, who attended the press conference instead of Vialli. "Wise is devastated. There was no reason to make the tackle. It's all about split-second decisions and he made the wrong one."
And the manager's reaction? "Luca tends to get a bit emotional, tempers were rising. Which was a bit daft on our part - leading 4-1 with five minutes to go."
Vialli's fury was understandable. Wise, who had played superbly in the midfield anchor role, will now be suspended for three Premiership matches. He will still be eligible for Saturday's match at Stamford Bridge when the visitors will be an Aston Villa side seeking to atone for last night's defeat, their first since April.
It promises to be an interesting match even if most of the cast, Wise apart, will be changed. Vialli will probably rest himself but Tore Andre Flo made another powerful case for inclusion with an impressive performance that included an excellent goal.
Aston Villa had also confirmed their arrival among the game's elite in fielding a near reserve side. They made six changes from the team which had maintained their four-point Premiership lead on Saturday, including most of the star names - Merson, Collymore, Southgate and Barry.
Though the names were different, both teams retained their essential character. Chelsea, playing 4-4-2, had seven foreigners, each from a different country. Villa, with their customary 3-5-2, were entirely composed of Englishmen, a distinction not lost on their supporters, who raised an early chant of "Eng-er-land". Such was the respective depth of the teams' squads, however, that Chelsea could still field seven internationals to Villa's two.
It was their global cavaliers, most playing for a first-team place, who began the brightest, with Flo cutting inside and driving in a fierce shot which Michael Oakes could only parry. The rebound fell to Gustavo Poyet and the Uruguayan thumped it against the bar. Still within the first five minutes Vialli, on the counter-attack released Mark Nicholls, who brought a fine save from Oakes.
The holders were to rue those wasted chances as Villa scored after 10 minutes. Wise unnecessarily brought down Byfield and Mark Draper's free- kick was deflected in off Poyet, standing tallest in the wall.
Backed by a decent, though not full crowd, Chelsea resumed the assault with Poyet and Flo to the fore. Oakes saved twice from Flo then, with 27 minutes gone, made a stunning stop from Poyet as he rose to meet a delicately chipped cross from Jody Morris. Poyet put another header on to the roof of the net before the siege finally breached the Villa defence after 32 minutes.
Draper, dallying in the centre circle, was dispossessed by Bernard Lambourde. As Villa claimed a foul Lambourde strode on, drew Oakes and wisely slipped a pass for his boss to score his first goal of the season.
Vialli and Michael Duberry went close to putting Chelsea ahead before Poyet, on the left, drilled a low pass into Vialli after 67 minutes. The Italian swivelled brilliantly to turn Simon Grayson then drove a shot past Oakes.
Three minutes later, Flo was brought down just outside the penalty area by Ian Taylor as he broke dangerously down the right. The Norwegian took ample revenge by heading in Wise's free-kick.
Flo, twice, and Celestine Babayaro went close to adding a fourth before Vialli, set up by Wise and Poyet, completed his hat-trick.
"Their reserves were better than our reserves," John Gregory, the Villa manager, said. "Especially up front. We'll have to be better on Saturday."
Chelsea will simply have to be better behaved. Their celebrations began to sour when Dan Petrescu, reacting angrily to being substituted, stormed off down the tunnel. Then Wise lost his head.
Chelsea's reward is a fourth-round trip to Arsenal. Three players have been dismissed in meetings between the London teams in the past 15 months. "It will," said Rix, "be a highly charged, emotional night."
Who says the Worthington Cup is meaningless?
Chelsea (4-4-2): Kharine; Petrescu (Terry, 86), Duberry, Lambourde, Babayaro; Morris, Wise, Poyet, Nicholls (Clement, 77); Flo, Vialli (Harley, 89). Substitutes not used: Zola, Hitchcock (gk).
Aston Villa (3-5-2): Oakes; Watson, Ehiogu, Grayson; Charles (Vassell, 76), Taylor, Draper, Scimeca (Thompson, 58), Wright (Jaszczun, 75); Joachim, Byfield. Substitutes not used: Rachel, Samuel.
Referee: G Barber (Tring).
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