Late goal by Gallas kick-starts Chelsea

Sparta Prague 0 Chelsea 1
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The Independent Football

The Russians are not the most popular of visitors to Prague, having notoriously overstayed their welcome in 1945, but Roman Abramovich felt at home last night as his Chelsea team eased their way back into Champions' League competition.

A late goal from William Gallas ensured a performance of growing authority would not go unrewarded in the Czech capital, despite a series of misses from Hernan Crespo. With Lazio defeating Besiktas in Istanbul, Group G is already going to form.

The victory did not quite go to plan for Claudio Ranieri, though. For his Champions' League debut as coach he had unveiled his European XI. This featured seven changes from the team who defeated Tottenham at the weekend and left nearly £50m of talent on the bench.

The defining characteristic was experience in the continental arena. Out went such Premiership stalwarts as Frank Lampard, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and John Terry. In came Claude Makelele, Crespo and Gallas. Emmanuel Petit was also preferred to Damien Duff at left-midfield. Though unexpected, this gave Ranieri a midfield quartet replete with Champions' League experience.

However, Euro-Chelsea lacked width and drive, and though Petit and Adrian Mutu had played well individually, Ranieri had to rejig the side at the break. He withdrew them in favour of Lampard and Damien Duff. Lampard went to partner Makelele in central midfield with the wide men, Geremi and Duff, pushed up and Juan Sebastian Veron playing off Crespo in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

The change gave Chelsea a better platform and greater width. They penned back Sparta and the goal, though delayed, was deserved. "We wanted to give Sparta space so we could counter-attack, but they closed down the space," Ranieri said, "so in the second half I changed the system."

Had Crespo been sharper, Ranieri's boldness would have paid off much earlier. The Argentine, making his first start for Chelsea, missed three clear chances. After 51 minutes he ran on to Glen Johnson's clever pass but his attempted chip was too soft.

Soon after the hour-mark Veron, hitherto a peripheral figure but now relishing the freedom his new role gave him, twice released Crespo with beautifully judged passes. Each time his compatriot failed to convert, putting a chip wide and then shooting over. It was beginning to look like a duff debut of Chris Sutton proportions and Ranieri turned to the displaced Hasselbaink, scorer of four goals already this season.

It did the trick. Though Hasselbaink was blocked by the excellent Petr Johana when Makelele released him 11 minutes from time, he was on hand after 83 minutes to flick on Duff's cross after a corner was half-cleared. The ball fell to Gallas, who turned it in at the far post.

Though Marcel Desailly was forced to limp through the closing minutes, Sparta's attempts at a reply came no closer than Karol Poborsky's wayward shot.

Ranieri preferred to praise Crespo rather than criticise him. "He had a different pre-season to the rest of us and still needs to do some work but he is getting better," the manager said. "He is a clever striker who creates chances with his movement but he is not in good condition to score a goal."

The £16.8m signing was not the only player lacking condition. Neither Makelele nor Gallas had started a match previously this season and both began slowly. Each conceded potentially problematic free-kicks and, more reprehensibly, Makelele was caught in possession attempting to run the ball out of defence after 19 minutes.

This resulted in Igor Gluscevic having a free run at goal but Carlo Cudicini saved well, just as he had from a dangerous free-kick by Vladimir Labant. With the imperious Desailly mopping up most other threats, especially covering for the overwhelmed Wayne Bridge, Chelsea resisted Sparta's initial pressure and began to press themselves. Yet while they increasingly controlled possession, they could create only half-chances which neither Crespo nor Mutu could convert.

Indeed, the best chance of the half came at its conclusion when Tomas Jun's chip eluded Johnson and the promising Radoslav Kovacs brought a fine tumbling save from Cudicini.

The second period began in chaos with the German referee allowing Sparta to kick off while Chelsea had nine men on the pitch, Lampard on the touchline and the other half-time substitute, Duff, still in the dressing-room. Chelsea avoided conceding and, once they re-grouped, took command. For a long time it still seemed they would have to settle for a point. While not a bad result, it would have been a disappointing one.

The standard of the opposition was underlined by the presence of Labant, the Slovakian left-back who had been unable even to gain a regular place in the defence that took West Ham down. Then Gallas ensured one Russian at least would leave Prague with happy memories.

Sparta Prague (4-4-2): Blazek; Petras (Sionko, h-t), Hübschman, Johana, Labant (Jezek, 86); Poborsky, Nemec, Kovac, Michalik (Zboncak, 56); Jun, Gluscevic. Substitutes not used: Kouba (gk), Zelenka, Kincl, Homola.

Chelsea (4-1-2-1-2): Cudicini; Johnson, Gallas, Desailly, Bridge; Makelele; Geremi, Petit (Lampard, h-t); Veron; Mutu (Duff, h-t), Crespo (Hasselbaink, 72). Substitutes not used: Ambrosio (gk), Cole, Gudjohnsen, Terry.

Referee: H Fleischer (Ger).