Football: Vialli's rotation leaves Chelsea in tailspin

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The Independent Online
IF IT is any consolation to Chelsea and Newcastle United, their unconvincing performances in Thursday night's European Cup-Winners' Cup first-leg ties formed part of an unexpected pattern spread throughout the competition. Of the other teams fancied to do well, Lazio, Paris St- Germain and Germany's MSV Duisburg were all held to a draw at home by lightly regarded opposition.

At least the English pair won, albeit by a single goal, and will travel to their return games in better heart than the representatives of Italy, France and Germany.

Their frustration on Thursday was almost as great, however, Chelsea's because of the failure to break down a dogged Helsingborg defence more than once and Newcastle's because of conceding an away goal to Partizan Belgrade.

The link between the two English clubs is, of course, Ruud Gullit, and it was the system of squad rotation he introduced to Stamford Bridge that provided the main talking point after the game there.

Gullit, it was generally agreed, mixed and matched to good effect, the few remaining British players accepting that results justified a system contrary to that they had been brought up with. After the great parting of the ways, his successor, Gianluca Vialli, found the right formation to win two cups, and on the back of that convinced his paymasters that four more World Cup players should be thrown into the melting pot as well.

Now, 30 highly-paid professionals are studying the team-sheet each week, with little idea which of them will actually get a game.

If results were still good, this might be seen as creative tension, keeping everyone on their toes and standards high; performances like Thursday's struggle to overcome the Swedish side Helsingborg by one illegal goal to nil (Dennis Wise fouled an opponent to help Franck Leboeuf's free-kick on its way into the net) suggest that there might yet be merit in the old-fashioned notion of finding the best side and sticking with it.

After achieving a first win of the season last Saturday, Vialli had made seven changes and used a new system, incorporating a David Ginola-like role for Brian Laudrup. The Dane had complained publicly before the match about the difficulties for individuals and the team in finding a rhythm, especially with four newcomers.

After a disjointed display, flawed by much more than the mere missing of chances, Vialli was reluctant to discuss the matter, saying only: "I have 22 players and plenty of matches. I don't want to end up in January with all of them tired. With so many players, I can change the team and still play well."

The danger, even if they should still beat Helsingborg, is that Chelsea as a unit will not play well enough quickly enough to launch the championship challenge that was expected of them this season.

Gullit, meanwhile, taking Newcastle to Belgrade with a 2-1 lead, will want the sort of solid away leg that Chelsea gave him in Bratislava last season, rather than the wild sleigh-ride in the Tromso snow, where they lost 3-2.

Britain's other representatives, Hearts, should have no problem with the weather in Spain but cannot be optimistic about their tie with Real Mallorca, after losing the home leg 1-0.