Chelsea's advance is built on defence

It is a measure of Chelsea's progress on the pitch, and the post-Abramovich rise in expectation off it, that there was an anticlimactic air about Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night despite the club qualifying for the knock-out stages of the Champions' League with a game to spare.

That was primarily due to the stubborn defence of Sparta Prague who became only the third team in 21 matches to prevent Chelsea scoring this season. That said, Chelsea had two-thirds of possession, a goal wrongly disallowed and hit both post and bar.

A more pertinent statistic, in view of Sunday's Premiership match with Manchester United, is that Chelsea have now kept five successive clean sheets. The last players to score against them, somewhat improbably, were Tony Barras and Mark Stallard of relegation-threatened Notts County of the Second Division.

Their goals, while admirable, were against the makeshift central defensive partnership of Robert Huth and Mario Melchiot. When John Terry, Williams Gallas or, less frequently (and what a statement that makes about Chelsea's depth) Marcel Desailly, are in situ Chelsea are near impregnable. In the last 10 matches Terry has played Chelsea have only conceded two goals, to Szilard Nemeth and Simone Inzaghi, neither of which cost Chelsea points. Thus when, once again, Chelsea were yesterday linked with yet more putative signings neither were defenders.

Not that, even if the rumours are true, either Michael Ballack, Bayern Munich's German international midfielder, nor Nilmar, a young Brazilian striker, are likely to arrive during the January transfer window. While Ballack would be an immediate contender for the squad, Nilmar, from Internacional of Porto Alegre, would initially be loaned to CSKA Moscow.

Chelsea's players, used to such speculation, are concentrating on the facts, beginning with the fixture list and Sunday's game. Oddly, Chelsea have a better record against United at Old Trafford than at the Bridge. All of which makes the match, said Terry, an even greater challenge. Using the preferred adjective of the modern footballer it is, he said, "massive".

"It's a chance for us to prove ourselves," he added. "We're confident that we're as good as them. We lost at Highbury so it's important to prove we can beat one of the big two." Joe Cole, who produced his usual mix of slapdash magic on Wednesday, said: "People will look upon Sunday's match as a measure of how far we have come."

Cole's prospects of playing will depend on the fitness of Juan Sebastian Veron, who returned from South American World Cup qualifying with a back injury, and Claudio Ranieri's boldness. More probably Geremi or Jesper Gronkjaer will return.

Qualifying has eased possible concern at Chelsea over the Turkish Football Federation's threat to take Uefa, the governing body of European football, to the Court of Arbitration for Sport over the decision to move two ties, including Chelsea's visit to Besiktas, to neutral venues. This could mean the match, scheduled for 9 Dec, is delayed.