Chelsea's sentence is hard labour

Alex Hayes finds the response to embarrassment is extra time
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The Independent Online

At least Chelsea can never be accused of doing things by halves. Ken Bates's "continental" club are self-destructing with the kind of speed and precision they so sorely lack on the field. Chelsea are like a sledge on a mountain - sliding fast and out of control. Worse still, it is difficult to predict when the free-fall will stop.

At least Chelsea can never be accused of doing things by halves. Ken Bates's "continental" club are self-destructing with the kind of speed and precision they so sorely lack on the field. Chelsea are like a sledge on a mountain - sliding fast and out of control. Worse still, it is difficult to predict when the free-fall will stop.

The 3-3 draw with Manchester United last Saturday was supposed to be the turning point; the end of the troubles and the beginning of a new era. Instead, the match proved to be little more than a temporary respite. As on all the best roller-coaster rides, Chelsea's players thought their ordeal was over, only for there to be yet another unexpected stomach-churning plunge, this time in the form of a 2-0 defeat to lowly St Gallen in the first round of the Uefa Cup.

Chelsea's new head coach, Claudio Ranieri, is intent on justifying his image of a ruthless disciplinarian. The team returned from the Swiss débâcle on Friday afternoon and were promptly kept back for an extra training session. Players looked depressed, almost embarrassed. "We deserve to be made to work more," Carlo Cudicini, the reserve goalkeeper who has been deputising for the injured Ed de Goey, said. "It is very difficult for us to accept this defeat. We have lost to a very average team, who played well on the day, and now we are just left to cry."

Cudicini, along with Graeme Le Saux and Tore Andre Flo, has probably been Chelsea's most consistent performer this season. The 26-year-old Italian keeper, who was signed by the ousted manager Gianluca Vialli, has been in excellent form since De Goey was sidelined five weeks ago. He is a youngster who has been keeping his head, while many of the club's senior players have been losing theirs all around him.

Cudicini was reluctant to criticise his defence for the midweek defeat, but the centre-back partnership of Frank Leboeuf and Winston Bogarde clearly has much to answer for. "It's difficult to say exactly who is to blame or what is happening," the goalkeeper said. "I don't think there is one particular aspect of our team that is going wrong. If that was the case, I'm sure we would have resolved it. Against St Gallen, I just think we tried to attack too much when all we needed to do was defend our lead from the first leg."

He added: "After the match, we just had something to eat and went to bed. Nobody was talking and I doubt if many people were able to sleep very much after what happened. Since then, we have been trying to work it out. But we are confused."

Chelsea have very little time to put things right. Victory in today's League match against Liverpool already seems vital if they are to maintain any realistic chance of finishing in the top three and gain a precious Champions' League place. But the London club have not won since the opening day of the season and, although Gérard Houllier's team are not at their best, this will be a real test of Chelsea's character.

"The whole team have to get it right," Cudicini said. "If we don't start to win quickly, we can forget the Premiership. But we need to get more regular results. Our manager told us after the St Gallen game that he doesn't like teams that play well one day and badly the next. We did this last year, when we were good in the Champions' League and then bad in the championship. That's what we need to put right."

This year, Chelsea have been a model of consistency. Poor in all competitions.

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