Chelsea guarantee inconsistency as Crouch signs off in style

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The Independent Football

For the sixth successive season Chelsea have finished in the top six of the Premiership, promising more consistent performances next time around; for the sixth time in a row Villa have ended up between fifth and eighth, knowing more funds are required to take the next step. Who would bet against both being in exactly the same place in 12 months' time – thereabouts, but not quite there?

Graham Taylor, a man who has always understood the dynamics of English football's class system, is unlikely to wager too much on a seismic shift. Years ago he was able to take a small-town team like Watford from the Fourth Division to finish runners-up in the top flight, which – whatever his critics may say – remains one of the great managerial achievements. With Villa, too, he made it to second place, earning the job of England manager on the back of it.

But times change, and these days Taylor insists: "It's harder now to get into the top four than it was then to finish second. Seventh or eighth is about right, about where we should be at the present time. My job is to see if we can take them on a little bit higher."

However, in 13 games after switching from boardroom to dug-out following John Gregory's walk-out, Taylor was able to inspire only three victories from a team that briefly topped the table in autumn. Competent as they were in the Stamford Bridge sunshine, with Darius Vassell and Peter Crouch a particularly effective partnership in attack, it was a huge bonus to finish the season playing a side who had lost the FA Cup final only seven days earlier.

"Our season finished in Cardiff," said Chelsea's manager Claudio Ranieri. "We spent a lot of psychological energy in the semi-final and the final. I want to improve step by step, and this season we improved one step." The next one must be the Champions' League, which would only be back to the stage the club were at two years ago under Gianluca Vialli.

Ranieri has been granted a new five-year contract by the Chelsea hierarchy – alias Ken Bates – which is prepared to regard this as a season of transition (another one) and therefore see a Uefa Cup place, the FA Cup final and Worthington semi-final as more than acceptable. Bates said on Saturday: "Claudio knows what changes he wants to make for 2002-03 and we are busy implementing his ideas in conjunction with Trevor Birch."

Birch is the club's new managing director, replacing Colin Hutchinson, the man who chose Ranieri as manager and negotiated all the major foreign transfers of the last few years. He will be a hard act to follow.

At their best (winning 3-0 away to Manchester United) Chelsea have been hugely impressive; at their worst (losing 3-0 at home to Manchester United) utterly feeble. Consistency? Don't bank on it.

Chelsea 1 Aston Villa 3

Goals: Crouch (21) 0-1; Vassell (63) 0-2; Gudjohnsen pen (69) 1-2; Dublin (88) 1-3.

Chelsea (4-4-2): Cudicini 8; Melchiot 4, Gallas 5, Terry 4, Le Saux 6 (Huth 5, h-t); Gronkjaer 6 (Gudjohnsen 6, h-t), Lampard 6, Petit 6, Zenden 4 (Dalla Bona 6, h-t); Cole 6, Zola 7. Substitutes not used: De Goey (gk), Stanic.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Enckelman 7; Delaney 7, Mellberg 6, Staunton 7, Wright 7; Stone 7, Boateng 6, Hitzlsperger 6 (Hendrie 7, 53), Barry 5; Vassell 8 (Dublin, 85), Crouch 8 (Angel, 85). Substitutes not used: Henderson (gk), Hadji.

Referee: S Bennett (Orpington) 7.

Booking: Villa: Hitzlsperger.

Man of the match: Crouch.

Attendance: 40,709.

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