Chelsea Six put harmony at sixes and sevens

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The Independent Online

As Chelsea attempted to present something like a united front to the outside world following the embarrassment of their trip to Israel last week, the most significant observation came from one of the opponents who will face them in the Premiership at Elland Road this afternoon. "What would have happened here is that we'd all have got together and it would have been all or nothing," he said. That is a Leeds United front, typifying an attitude first ingrained during Don Revie's day and revived during the tribulations in Turkey 18 months ago, when two supporters were killed before the Uefa Cup tie against Galatasaray.

Similarly, it is difficult to imagine six Republic of Ireland players refusing to travel to Saudi Arabia or Iran next month, and letting their team-mates get on with winning them a place at the World Cup finals, any more than they might have opted out of going to Yugoslavia, Macedonia or Croatia in the last European Championship. But it would be interesting to observe Roy Keane's reaction to anyone who tried.

The strongest teams – the ones challenging at the top of the table, rather than under-achieving year after year – win together and (once in a while) lose together, rather than losing with half the side sitting at home watching on television. They arrive back at Stansted Airport at 4.45am together, suffering the madness of such travel arrangements together, and the next day jump on another aeroplane in preparation for facing Leeds together.

Of course, Chelsea's plight was made all the worse by Thursday's result. Had Hapoel Tel Aviv been beaten, or even held to a comfortable draw, the six refuseniks would have been able to turn up at the training ground yesterday with heads held rather higher. As it was, those who declined to travel, whether citing an aching Achilles or a pregnant partner, must be uncomfortably aware that their absence had a direct bearing on a performance that makes elimination at an early stage of the Uefa Cup for the second year running eminently possible.

While it would be unfair in the circumstances to lay much blame at the door of the 17 year-old England youth international Jole Kitamirike on his first-team debut, the uncertainty in a defence missing Marcel Desailly, William Gallas, Albert Ferrer and Graeme Le Saux was evident all night. Redressed for 88 minutes by the agility of Mark Bosnich in goal, it was finally punished with a penalty, and a header by a player unmarked eight yards from goal.

Desailly, Chelsea's captain, had already made it clear that he would not travel before suffering his tendon trouble; Gallas was therefore needed all the more as his replacement; Ferrer, peeved at being given so few games this season, would have been the obvious player to bring on once Mario Melchiot let everyone down by kicking an opponent off the ball; Le Saux, Emmanuel Petit or Gudjohnsen could only have been an improvement on Celestine Babayaro and Boudewijn Zenden, of whom the best said was that they were on the pitch rather at home on the settee.

It was hardly surprising that neither Ken Bates nor the Hapoel coach could resist having a little verbal dig. Bates pointed out that the intimidation would be worse in Leeds than Tel Aviv and repeated the line from his programme notes last Saturday that "the players will have to live with their decision".

That was before he knew the result. Hapoel's Dror Kashtan, savouring "one of the greatest moments in Israeli football", added: "One of the things you have to be equipped with is courage. The players have not only shown courage and professionalism, but shown that there is great football in Israel and that you can play with full security in a peaceful environment."

His opposite number, Claudio Ranieri, sensibly trying to avoid splitting the dressing-room further, would only say that the players who stayed behind should be fresher at Elland Road, though Desailly and Gudjohnsen may both be unfit. "We're still two years behind Leeds in our building," he admitted. Supporters posting "Sack the Six" messages on the Chelsea website may feel the club's old rivals have the edge in other areas too.

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