Chelsea turn into a team as winning attitude takes root

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The Independent Football

Three months after Roman Abramovich came out of Russia throwing his loose roubles at the transfer market - and 14 matches into the new era he launched - Chelsea are starting to resemble a team in the truest sense rather than the band of gifted mercenaries some critics have branded them.

John Terry, their captain in the 2-1 victory over Lazio that took Claudio Ranieri's side to the top of Group G, hailed the performance as "definitely our best this season". The signs of a cohesive pattern of play and fighting spirit, coming as they did against high-class Italian opposition and after the defeat at Arsenal, were indeed promising.

Though the group is unusually open, with no side having won at home before Wednesday, Terry believes that four points from the last three games will book Chelsea's place in the knock-out stages. Those do not begin until February, by which time the caveats about 14 new signings needing time to gel will no longer wash with Abramovich or the supporters.

That modest haul is no formality given that Chelsea have still to visit Lazio and Besiktas. But the attitudes that players like Claude Makelele have brought to the Bridge - the Real Madrid mentality of every match being winnable is clearly seared into his psyche - are taking root.

Terry, for one, talked of going to Rome to win. Judging by the way they came from behind to beat Lazio in the first of their back-to-back meetings with Roberto Mancini's team, it is within their compass. Makelele proved he could be to Chelsea what, say, Roy Keane is to Manchester United, breaking up moves as well as influencing play in a positive sense.

Frank Lampard, a vibrant remnant of the "old" Chelsea, not only scored with stunning technique but stayed the course better than Juan Sebastian Veron, whose display was like a firework that lights up brilliantly yet quickly fizzles out.

Adrian Mutu, the match-winner, may even, in time, become a Chelsea cult figure in the manner of Gianfranco Zola. The Romanian's partnership with Eidur Gudjohnsen was the sixth Ranieri has tried in attack.

The first-choice duo, assuming the so-called "Tinkerman" acknowledges the concept, would probably comprise Mutu and Hernan Crespo (who missed his Lazio reunion due to injury), but Chelsea now have options even Manchester United must envy.

In Carlo Cudicini, they also have the best goalkeeper in the Premiership according to Terry. The former Lazio man certainly redeemed his Highbury gaffe with some athletic saves late on. Full-back could yet prove a weakness at the highest level, however. Glen Johnson's positional sense was exposed for Simone Inzaghi's opening goal, while Wayne Bridge was better going forward than defending.

Provided they glean something from Italy and Turkey, Chelsea's record of just two defeats in 42 European home games augurs well for their progress in the Champions' League. The pedigree of Makelele and Crespo, allied to the "English" qualities embodied by Terry, make it possible. Abramovich's ambition and Ranieri's continued employment may make it imperative.

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