Football: Vialli's one-upmanship

Gullit sees his old boys go top of the Premiership and condemn his new ones to a long winter struggle
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The Independent Online
Newcastle United 0

Chelsea 1

Petrescu 39

Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 36,711

SO, THE team that Ruud Gullit built head the Premiership this morning. We are talking about Chelsea, of course, a group of players who he still claims to have been influential in establishing at Stamford Bridge and in whose achievements he takes a reflected pride, even though the Dutchman actually only brought six of yesterday's starting line-up to the club.

Frankly, it was just about the only satisfaction the Newcastle manager, dismissed by the Londoners 11 months ago, could extract from a contest in which his side started in the mood to take a notable scalp but ended looking increasingly guileless and lacking direction.

Chelsea, with goalkeeper Ed De Goey a massive wall of defiance behind a rearguard so resolute they rendered even Alan Shearer ineffective by his own high standards, extended their unbeaten run to 20 games. Indeed, they might easily have added to the home team's misfortunes in the latter stages as player-manager Gianluca Vialli won the duel of honour with Gullit, the man who had enticed the Italian to Stamford Bridge as one of the world's great strikers.

When Gullit suggested: "Of course they have to win the title with the quality they have", it was rather less a compliment to Vialli, rather more a case of self-congratulation. Similarly, when he added: "We saw the difference today between a team going for the title and one in the bottom half of the table - there was a huge difference in quality", it was Gullit's way of absolving himself of responsibility for the team he inherited.

How long the St James' Park faithful are actually prepared to wait for the manager to transform their fortunes is a matter of conjecture. But, by the whistle, a giant crane behind the Leazes End looked an all-too inviting construction for a mass suicide as the disaffected pondered Newcastle's third consecutive league defeat and wondered what had become of their team since Kevin Keegan departed.

If this had been a duel at dawn, Gullit would have been first to react with his flintlock cocked, only to find the mechanism rusty. It would have been Vialli blowing the cordite away with a highly satisfied smile on his face after giving a front-running performance which was to prove inspirational. Gary Speed struck a post with a full-blooded drive from outside the box and Stephen Glass was a picture of frustration after Franck Leboeuf prevented a goal by blocking the ball on the line with his chest on one of the rare occasions that De Goey, Gullit's old Stamford Bridge room-mate, was absent.

Dietmar Hamann, too, tested the Blues' defence. But that all occurred in the first half, after which Newcastle's decline was palpable. Only Hamann tested De Goey again, but again he responded effectively. "Everybody says we are making progress, but we need the points," said Gullit. "My players are very disappointed they didn't get anything out of the game. We need to get some quality players, but there is not the time to work with them. I need the close season to do the things I want to."

When the former Dutch maestro had reflected beforehand on "the special piquancy" of this match, you could understand his desperation. He might have become the first foreign coach to lift the FA Cup for the club, but that counted for nothing when he was sacked by Chelsea early last year and the acrimony between him and Chelsea chairman Ken Bates has been almost as fierce as the bearded one's disaffection with Glenn Hoddle.

Once Chelsea had taken a first-half lead through Dan Petrescu, thumping home a cross from Dennis Wise which eluded the lurking Vialli and a Newcastle rearguard which included new signing, the Frenchman Didier Domi, Gullit's side never suggested they would give their manager the taste of victory he so desperately craved. He was left with only the taste of bile in his gullet.

Chelsea achieved their success despite Vialli being forced to deploy himself alongside Gianfranco Zola. No doubt it had supporters of a few other clubs sniggering at the thought that even Chelsea were down to their last two fit strikers, with Gustavo Poyet, Pierluigi Casiraghi and Tore Andre Flo all injured. But it made no difference to the threat the visitors posed.

"I know this [the comparison with Gullit] is part of the game but I think sometimes we talk too much about individuals," the Chelsea manager said afterwards. "It was not Gullit v Vialli but Newcastle v Chelsea. The players knew that and approached the game in the right way and I have to say 'thank you' - not because we beat our past and Ruud Gullit but because we got three points and are top of league.

"It's a great feeling to be top of the table; it was another exciting win. But we know there is a long way to go. Aston Villa are a great team and it is going to be tight."

Shearer's partnership with Andreas Andersson, the deputy for the injured Duncan Ferguson, was largely unproductive and there was great anticipation from the crowd when Gullit threw on a substitute, the Frenchman Louis Saha, who is on loan from Metz until the end of the season. The gambit failed to produce the expected response.

Glass fashioned a chance for Aaron Hughes, but his volley was lamentable, and, with Newcastle's confidence ebbing, it was Chelsea who appeared more likely to embellish their victory. Shay Given made a splendid double save from Dennis Wise and Roberto di Matteo, and the former might have done better when clear with only the goalkeeper to beat.

By the end, Gullit's team had deteriorated to the point where it was difficult to see where their hearts were - if, indeed, they still had any for this fight. The same might apply to their sorely tested followers. When the manager has to plead in the programme for Newcastle supporters to make their voices heard, you can be sure they have very little to shout about.

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