Football: Worse Luca for Chelsea

FA Premiership: United stretch lead to nine points as pesky Heskey brings Vialli down to earth; By Ian Ridley Leicester City 2 Heskey 3, 89 Chelsea 0 Attendance: 21,335
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The Independent Online
AFTER the champagne and San Lorenzo cuisine that accompanied Gianluca Vialli's first match as Chelsea's player-coach and the reaching of the Coca-Cola Cup final, this was more like brown ale and fish and chips on the nearby Narborough Road. But then that's Chelsea - talented, maddeningly inconsistent Chelsea - for you, no matter who is in charge, it seems.

Two goals by an inspired Emile Heskey, one two minutes into the game, one two minutes from the end, brought Leicester City - determined, annoyingly persistent Leicester City - a deserved victory and must have ended Chelsea's lingering Premiership title aspirations.

Simply, Chelsea could not reproduce the energy and enthusiasm of a heady night at Stamford Bridge when they saw off Arsenal and in the cold light of a February Saturday, ultimately succumbed somewhat lamely. And the only change in the team was Dimitri Kharin for Ed de Goey, away with Holland, in goal.

Actually, that may have been the problem. Vialli may not want to rotate the squad in that way of Ruud Gullit's that so alienated him, but his 4-3-3 was not so well suited to combating a Leicester team who seemed to outnumber them in midfield and certainly showed more appetite.

"If I want to improve as a player manager I have to learn how to go through the great feeling like we had on Wednesday and the bad feeling I have now," said Vialli. "We started too slowly and made too many mistakes in the first 20 minutes. We should be physically strong enough to play two good matches in a row. When your game is not spot-on, you have to forget about nice football, be more solid. This is the way we didn't start the match."

"I know they had a massive game and there was an overspill of tiredness and euphoria but we were ready for it," said the Leicester manager Martin O'Neill, his words mirroring the contrast in the team. "Maybe there was something in the fact that we felt hard done by after our FA Cup experiences against them last season."

Certainly, Leicester came out with a ferocity that seemed to surprise Chelsea and they took the lead with the game's first attack. Steve Guppy's corner from the right was only half cleared and when Neil Lennon headed the ball back the visitors were left appealing for offside as Heskey brought the ball down on his chest before volleying home from close range. It was Heskey's first Leicester goal for four months and 13 games.

Indeed he was looking sharper than he has done for some time, providing Franck Leboeuf with a real problem. Heskey might even have doubled the lead, glancing Robbie Savage's cross just wide.

By contrast, Chelsea could find little rhythm. In midfield, Dan Petrescu, Dennis Wise and Roberto Di Matteo - the latter two booked for late tackles as illustration of their travails - struggled to assert themselves against Neil Lennon, Muzzy Izzet and Theo Zagorakis, the Greek national captain making his first start for Leicester.

Potential attacks often broke down on Leicester's solid defence, in which Matt Elliott was his usual rock-life self and Chelsea's frustration mounted. Mark Hughes was booked for dissent. Wise's shot three minutes from half- time, gathered by Pegguy Arphexad, was Chelsea's first shot on target.

For a while in the second half, Chelsea passed the ball more neatly, more vigorous in attitude and approach, and the agileArphexad twice had to be at his best to deny them. First he clutched Leboeuf's 30-yard free- kick then grabbed a deflected header by Graeme Le Saux, now pushed forward into midfield, from Petrescu's cross.

It would have been a travesty, though. Leicester's formula for survival, of industry in closing teams down and striking on the break or scoring from set pieces, can often be dull but it wasn't yesterday.

Heskey, skilful and effective, might well have had a penalty when Michael Duberry appeared to bring him down. He also almost touched home Guppy's cross, as well as creating space for Graham Fenton to cross and Guppy to volley wide, before sealing the game himself.

Doggedly Heskey won the ball back from Duberry, fed Guppy and struck home powerfully from close range the return low cross. Champagne moments are not confined to the capital; something of which Chelsea need to be reminded.

l Gianluca Vialli last night responded to accusations from the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger that he and other Chelsea players were cheating by "diving" during last Wednesday's Coca-Cola Cup semi-final. "I think Mr Wenger missed a great opportunity to keep his mouth shut," Vialli said. "It was bullshit and it showed a lack of respect for me and my club."