Robben's fast raids give Jose whale of a time

Chelsea's snatch of the season has made an instant impact, says Steve Tongue
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The Independent Online

Football has never been short of wide boys, though there have been periods when more seemed to exist off the pitch than down the touchlines. At present, there is a welcome renaissance of wing play at home and abroad, all under the umbrella of different tactical systems. One of the most popular, and positive, is the use of a single central striker supplied and supported by two genuine wingers, of whom none has made a greater impact than Chelsea's Dutchman Arjen Robben.

Football has never been short of wide boys, though there have been periods when more seemed to exist off the pitch than down the touchlines. At present, there is a welcome renaissance of wing play at home and abroad, all under the umbrella of different tactical systems. One of the most popular, and positive, is the use of a single central striker supplied and supported by two genuine wingers, of whom none has made a greater impact than Chelsea's Dutchman Arjen Robben.

From the moment that Robben, 20, agreed to move to London from PSV Eindhoven, Manchester United having lost him by demanding a severe cut in the proposed £12m fee, it was assumed he would face a straight fight for the attacking left-sided berth with Damien Duff. In fact, both were injured when the campaign began, the team clearly suffering from lack of width as a result. Once the waspish little Irishman established himself, however, and Robben then recovered at last from a serious ankle problem, it became clear the two could perform in exciting tandem.

Eidur Gudjohnsen was the lucky man in the middle, the beneficiary of crosses from both wings supplied by specialists trained to deliver them. Alternatively, Robben might just decide to employ his dribbling skills to run through a whole defence and pop the ball in the net himself. The result was a first appear-ance, as a substitute against Blackburn, that lit up Stamford Bridge, as Gudjohnsen scored a hat-trick in a 4-0 win.

On full debut, away to CSKA Moscow, the Dutchman did his slalom trick for a winning goal, then repeated it three days later for the only goal against Everton. Before yesterday's home draw, he had scored in five successive games, including Holland's World Cup tie against Andorra in midweek; Chelsea are still top of the Premiership; and have already won their Champions' League group, which will resume in the most relaxed manner at home to Paris St-Germain on Wednesday.

Jose Mourinho, having persevered for a long time with Joe Cole as a free man, then run out of strikers because of injuries and drugs tests, has happily employed a genuine 4-3-3 system, though not without his usual methodical analysis of the options. "I don't like 4-4-2 in two lines," he said on Friday. "So the solution is a diamond or a triangle in midfield. With a diamond I have to play with two strikers through the middle; with a triangle we can play with three players up. That gives us bodies in front, which I like, seeing Chelsea shirts near the goal. It gives support.

"You don't need a box-to-box player running up and down all the time, because you already have three players up. It gives you width, but also from a defensive point of view gives big protection to the full-backs, because they can close the space in front. And because of their speed they're always dangerous in counterattack. When you have fast players, almost at the offside line, it's difficult for opponents."

United's fury at losing Robben last spring, after Sir Alex Ferguson had shown him round the training ground and wined and dined his family, was undoubtedly exacerbated by Peter Kenyon's role in the transfer following his own switch from Manchester to London. What will really have hurt Ferguson, however, as he sought a long-term replacement for Ryan Giggs, was his appreciation of just how great a talent is now at the disposal of his rivals. David Gill, Kenyon's successor as chief executive at Old Trafford, said of the deal last week: "We had to assess the value and what Alex thought he was worth and we lost out. Fine."

And even finer by Mourinho, whose perceived arrogance did not prevent him offering genuine credit where it was due for the snatch of the season: "Robben was not my decision. If it was Mr [Claudio] Ranieri's, I congratulate him and thank him. If it was Peter Kenyon's or Roman Abramovich's, then they must become managers, because they know a lot about football. It was a great decision, because Robben is fantastic."

Having begun to suspect as much from brief glimpses on the close-season tour of the United States, before the ankle injury, Mourinho was still surprised by how quickly the player was able to make his mark: "It was a direct impact. His pre-season was short, because he was injured for a long time. With his maturity, his ambition, never being involved and seeing fellow players going into games and having to stay here and train on his own, he was hungry to play. He was missing Champions' League and the national team. The train was rolling and he was never involved, so I think he was desperate to join us, and when he got the first chance..."

Opponents have been paying for that frustration ever since. Like several other Chelsea players, Robben may be due a rest on Wednesday, for, with top place in the group assured, the manager can rotate players to his heart's content - something he gives the impression of doing with greater logic than Ranieri. Furthermore, Mourinho has the Indian sign over French clubs, steering Porto through five unbeaten games against Marseille, Lyon and Monaco last season, and extending that run to six with the comfortable 3-0 success in Paris two months ago.

Robben, meanwhile, has won over supporters, the coach and his team-mates. The club captain, John Terry, even says he could become as good as Gianfranco Zola, and adds: "I tend to stay away from him in training. You don't want to get caught one-on-one with him." PSG defenders would happily be spared that fate.

CHAMPIONS' LEAGUE GUIDE

Tuesday: Group A: Monaco v Liverpool

Victory away to struggling Deportivo, albeit by an own goal, transformed Liverpool's prospects, making them joint leaders on seven points with Olympiakos, and a repeat here would ensure qualification. The injury to Milan Baros is all the more of a blow for coming so soon after Djibril Cissé's broken leg, and reduces the chances of that happening. Monaco (6 pts), were well beaten at Anfield but have won both their home games, scoring two early goals each time.

Tuesday: Group D: Manchester United v Lyon

Lyon (10 pts) top the group as well as the French league, two very late goals against Fenerbahce keeping them ahead of United (8 pts). Sir Alex Ferguson wants victory in his 1,000th match to make the final game away in Istanbul redundant, though a draw would do almost as well. Lyon led 2-0 at half-time in the opening game before Ruud van Nistelrooy's double; United need him to be fit.

Wednesday: Group E: PSV Eindhoven v Arsenal

Three draws and only five goals from four games illustrate how constricted Arsenal (6 pts) have been in Europe as opposed to the Premiership. It took an own goal to beat the Dutch league leaders PSV at Highbury, and if they cannot complete the double in Holland, Panathinaikos (5 pts) may be above them going into the decisive final round of games.

Wednesday: Group F: Barcelona v Celtic

Barcelona and Milan might have played out a preview of this season's final at the Nou Camp earlier this month, when Ronaldinho's 88th-minute goal (below) brought the sides level on nine points. In contrast, Celtic (3 pts) are playing for a Uefa Cup place and need to steal a draw here or at home to Milan to deprive Shakhtar Donetsk (3 pts) of it.

Wednesday: Group H: Chelsea v Paris St-Germain

Other than Chelsea (12 pts), only Juventus have won every game thus far and are also guaranteed winning their group. So Chelsea's manager, Jose Mourinho, can afford to change yesterday's team considerably. He will still be confident of repeating the comfortable 3-0 victory away to PSG even if he does, thereby giving Mr Abramovich's friends at CSKA (4 pts) a better chance of finishing in second place.

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