Desailly puts on bold front in fight for France

Time and opportunity are running out for captain of club and country. Alex Hayes talks to the Chelsea veteran
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The Independent Online

Something rare took place at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday evening. Marcel Desailly, the club captain and one of the pillars upon which Chelsea's recent successes have been built, played for the first team. It was only the Frenchman's third appearance in 2004 and his first in nearly two months.

Something rare took place at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday evening. Marcel Desailly, the club captain and one of the pillars upon which Chelsea's recent successes have been built, played for the first team. It was only the Frenchman's third appearance in 2004 and his first in nearly two months.

Not since 18 January had "Mister Marcel" been given the nod by Claudio Ranieri. What is more, had Glen Johnson not picked up an ankle injury, Desailly would have had to wait at least one more game for his chance. Say it quietly, but it appears Le Rock is slowly being shifted towards the exit door.

Not surprisingly, Desailly was at pains to deny this immediately after the goalless draw with Stuttgart that qualified Chelsea for their intriguing Champions' League quarter-final against Arsenal. "There's no problem," he said. "Why does everyone always think a player must completely re-evaluate the state of his career just because he has not played in the first team for a while? All that has happened is that I've got a bit older and am, therefore, no longer playing quite as many matches as I used to."

True, Desailly is approaching the end of his career, but if his age was such an issue would his national manager, Jacques Santini, really continue to show faith in the 35-year-old centre-back? For some time now it has become apparent that, while Desailly remains an ever-present force in the French set-up, he is an increasingly peripheral figure at Chelsea. The ultimate irony is that he continues to be, in name at least, the club captain. In every home match programme, Desailly's column fills its usual page. And, yet, in almost every one of those matches, he is keeping the bench warm.

Last week, in what may turn out to be the final indignity for Desailly, Ranieri decided to conduct his pre-match press conference with the vice-captain, John Terry, and then chose to let the Englishman retain the armband when the Frenchman came on.

"A lot is always made about me," Desailly said, "but I'm relaxed. I'm training and that's all that matters. It's you guys [in the media] who are making a whole saga about this. I'm on the training pitch every morning, running around and playing football, so that's not bad is it?" Not bad, but not good enough, surely, for a player who has won every major honour in the game?

Ranieri's dilemma is that he has, in Terry and William Gallas, arguably the best central defensive partnership in the Premiership, if not Europe. Indeed, Chelsea have not conceded a goal in the Champions' League since last October, when they defeated Lazio 2-1 at Stamford Bridge. Tellingly, Desailly played in only one of those five games.

There is a clear difference of opinion between Desailly's club and international managers, but which one is right? In a sense, it does not really matter. The simple fact is that if Desailly does not play more regularly for Chelsea, he will not lead France at Euro 2004 in Portugal this summer. This is no idle threat from Santini, which explains why another long-time regular, Fabien Barthez, felt the need to move away from Manchester United.

"I still think that my fitness is good and that my game is of a good standard," Desailly said, "so I'm OK. I certainly see no reason why I should be concerned about my place in the national team. I played on Tuesday night and I might play in the next match. But, then again, I might not. Either way, it doesn't mean anything at all in terms of Marcel Desailly's club or international prospects.

"Obviously, competitive matches are useful for a player, but it's not the be all and end all. Don't worry, I know what to do on a football pitch. The key for me at my age is not to be up and down. If I take good care of myself, I'll be able to continue offering this young team the benefits of my experience. And that's just as important. A lot of people fail to appreciate that my role at Chelsea is no longer just about playing; it's also about ideas and leadership."

Gallas, who plays alongside Desailly for France but keeps him out of the Chelsea team, concurs with his mentor's views. "All I can say when talking about Marcel is chapeau," he said, "because to be as competitive as he is at 35 is a wonderful achievement. I think he realises that he can no longer play in every match, but that does not stop him from helping those around him. Not that his career is over. What impresses me most is that he is always ready when called upon. He keeps himself fit and you know he will be the best defender on the pitch if he is selected."

So was Gallas happy to see Desailly back on Tuesday, even though that meant he had to revert to right-back? "Of course I like to see Marcel in the team," he said, "even if he takes my place at centre-back. I was very happy for him. It's never easy to be thrown in at the deep end like that, even for a player of his experience. He played well and demonstrated that he still has a lot to offer."

The question is, will Ranieri give him sufficient chances to prove it?

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