Football: Zola eclipsed by Vialli's hairline decision

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The Independent Online
Chelsea 1

Vialli 24

Newcastle United 1

Shearer 41

Attendance: 28,401

Azzurro should have been the colour, calcio the game, but Newcastle United clung on for a point at Stamford Bridge yesterday, and with it the leadership of the Premiership, in the face of a Chelsea barrage made possible by numerical advantage after the dismissal of David Batty.

Batty simply had to go after the elbow he landed flush in the face of Mark Hughes in the 52nd minute - remarkably, given the combative Newcastle midfield player's reputation, it was the first sending-off of his career - and with him went his 10-man team's chances of winning a pulsating match.

The momentum was with them at that point. Alan Shearer, on his return 34 days after his groin operation, had grabbed a goal four minutes before the break to cancel out what looked like a goal by Gianfranco Zola on his impressive home debut after his pounds 4.5m transfer from Parma - though his compatriot Gianluca Vialli claimed it - and they had begun the second half brightly.

Thereafter, though, they were forced to reorganise, taking off Faustino Asprilla and David Ginola, and defend stoutly as Chelsea's blue order stretched them wide to create waves of chances, Dennis Wise coming the closest with a 25-yard shot that thumped the crossbar.

"I feel sorry for the fans," Kevin Keegan, the Newcastle manager, said. "It was set up to be a classic but it died on them. Something happened to make Batty react like that. But nine times out of 10 the guy who starts it gets off scot-free. If there's no action, there is no reaction.''

Hughes may indeed have held off Batty with his arms under challenge but there can be no condoning that reaction. Batty, Keegan said, had apologised to the team. Keegan in turn apologised for taking off his "flair" players to preserve the point. "People call me cavalier and maybe I am but it would have been suicide to leave them on. It's all right for Roy of the Rovers but not in real life.''

Batty, like his team, had begun the game brightly by sending in a shot which had Chelsea's on-loan Norwegian Frode Grodas diving to save. But with the buzzing little Sardinian Zola given licence to roam behind Vialli and Hughes, Chelsea were swiftly into their stride as Newcastle's back three were pulled hither and thither.

There was a warning sign for Newcastle when Vialli headed Zola through, Pavel Srnicek saving at his feet. Then came the goal that confirmed the Italian influence.

After Scott Minto had been fouled wide on the left, Zola swung in a free- kick and Vialli crossed Srnicek's eyeline as the ball flew into the net. Vialli, reported to be on pounds 3,000 a goal, later claimed he had got a touch, though television replays suggested not. "Maybe he touched it with his hair," the Chelsea player-coach Ruud Gullit said. "I think he has one.''

It was just reward, though Newcastle were ever dangerous at the other end in the first half. A good chance fell to Faustino Asprilla from a corner but Franck Leboeuf was quick to block his shot from close range.

Shearer was twice supplied with crosses by Keith Gillespie but headed one high and the other just wide. He also failed to gather a through ball from Asprilla as, at this point, his match sharpness was clearly lacking. Frustration may have been the cause of his bad tackle on Wise that earned a yellow card.

You can't keep a good man down, however, and four minutes from half-time Shearer claimed the equaliser. Ginola found Asprilla who in turn threaded a perceptive pass through the Chelsea defence. Shearer appeared to have lost the chance when Grodas turned the ball wide at his feet but he spun and sent in a shot which Steve Clarke could only head on its way into the net.

Srnicek made good saves from Gullit's header and at Vialli's feet, Zola was close with a shot and after Wise's thumping bar-rattler.

"We did all we could," said Gullit, who described the game as a "good promotion for English football", even if it was overseas-dominated. But for Batty - hero in Tbilisi, villain of the Bridge - it might have been even better.