Chelsea move up credibility league

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The Independent Football

Victory at home to Sparta Prague tonight would book Chelsea's place in the knock-out stages of the Champions' League. Marcel Desailly, who is set to return to the side after injury, drew on his experience of European Cup combat at the highest level yesterday to claim that Claudio Ranieri's side are capable of going further still in the competition.

Desailly, part of the Milan team that crushed Barcelona 4-0 to lift the trophy nine years ago, confirmed his recovery from a hip problem after a six-week absence before venturing the view that Chelsea's polyglot side are on a par with Paolo Maldini and company. "The level is the same here - maybe a little higher," the French international defender said. "The problem is maintaining that week after week."

The 35-year-old Desailly has looked on as Chelsea have put together seven successive wins, with John Terry and William Gallas establishing a formidable partnership in the heart of their back four. The 4-0 rout of Lazio in Rome prompted him to believe that the credibility of an essentially new team was already high on the Continent.

"Maybe now," he reflected as he sat alongside Ranieri at Chelsea's west London training ground, "we are given more consideration in Europe." Desailly hoped to face Sparta for what would be only his 10th competitive appearance since the expensive revamping of the squad financed by Roman Abramovich, yet insisted that he was not unhappy with the manager's squad-rotation system.

"All the players in the group are important. You might be in this game and play well, then you might be out again. When your chance comes you have to give your best. We have a desire to play but we are professional. We see the quality of the players in the team, so when the manager doesn't pick you, you have to show him on the training pitch."

Ranieri, in turn, dismissed suggestions that his so-called tinkering might damage morale. "I don't want Marcel to be happy if he isn't playing. I want him hungry. All the players understand that. It's also normal to give him rest, play him in two or three games, then rest him again."

Against Sparta, Chelsea will be without Juan Sebastian Veron, who sustained a back injury while playing for Argentina last week, and Glen Johnson, who is suspended after his red card in Rome. Claude Makelele will have a fitness test on a neck injury today.

Resting more than the odd member of the side that stands second in the Premiership could send out the wrong signals. Virtually the only serious blip in Chelsea's progress came when Ranieri used the game against Besiktas to experiment tactically, and the confusion which ensued, allied to a measure of complacency, resulted in a 2-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea learned yesterday that Uefa has ruled that the return fixture with the Turks, which is due to be played in Istanbul on 9 December, will be staged at an as yet unspecified neutral venue because of the terrorist attacks in the city. Success against Sparta would take some of the tension out of the last group game, but Ranieri warned that it was no formality.

"Sparta can go through to the next round only if they beat us," he said. "They play better away from Prague, so they are very dangerous." The Czech champions led 2-0 at Lazio before drawing, and lost to an 83rd-minute goal at Besiktas which, when one recalls that Chelsea won in Prague in the 85th minute, points to a weakness in concentration.

However, Jiri Kotrba's side is steeped in big-match experience. Two members of the Czech Republic team that reached the final of Euro 96, Karel Poborsky and Jiri Nemec, are still going strong, while Sparta's goalkeeper, Jaromir Blazek, has attracted Premiership scrutiny.

* Sinisa Mihajlovic yesterday apologised to his Lazio team-mates for being sent off against Chelsea in the Champions' League but did not say sorry to Adrian Mutu, in whose face he spat. He said: "If I behaved badly, it was because I'd been provoked in a fairly low way."

Chelsea (4-4-2, probable): Cudicini; Melchiot, Terry, Desailly, Bridge; Gronkjaer, Lampard, J Cole, Duff; Crespo, Mutu.