Nilis brilliance cannot hide the failings

Belgian makes instant impact on Premiership debut while Chelsea manager complains of xenophobia
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The Independent Football

Late August seems a trifle early for Premiership sides to be serving up end-of-season fare, yet Aston Villa and Chelsea, sixth and fifth respectively last term, played out a soporific, staccato stalemate at Villa Park yesterday that arguably had less to commend it than their FA Cup final meeting in May.

Late August seems a trifle early for Premiership sides to be serving up end-of-season fare, yet Aston Villa and Chelsea, sixth and fifth respectively last term, played out a soporific, staccato stalemate at Villa Park yesterday that arguably had less to commend it than their FA Cup final meeting in May.

The promise held out by two goals in the opening half hour - the first a virtuoso effort by Luc Nillis on his Villa debut, the equaliser a header by Marcel Desailly which reflected poorly on the goal keeping of David James - proved to be illusory.

At the end of what their manager, Gianluca Vialli, admitted afterwards had been "a difficult week," with a lot of criticism, Chelsea should have been satisfied to have ended a run of four successive away defeats. But Vialli, while relieved that they had avoided a repeat of their fate at Bradford, complained that people were "picking on" his players and portraying them as "a group of foreigners here to pick up easy money who don't care about the club."

In a remark more relevant of Millwall than Chelsea, he told the assembled scribes: "We've got no friends. We know that unless we win the League by 25 points, we are shit." Pressed to elaborate on his team's alleged unpopularity he suggested they were disliked by the media, grinning as he added: "but none of my players read the papers anyway - so you are wasting your time."

The latter sentiment probably summed up the feelings of many among the 27,000 crowd as they filed out of what is currently a three-sided, atmosphere-free stadium. The first disappointment came before a ball was kicked in earnest when it transpired that David Ginola had received an accidental knock from Paul Merson in training and would not be fit to make his first home appearance.

At least the Villa manager, John Gregory, had advance notice of the Frenchman's indisposition. Vialli was forced to thrust his reserve goalkeeper, Carlo Cudicini, into the fray for only his second start after Ed de Joey pulled a hamstring muscle during the warm up. He also lost Mario Stanic, his £5.6m Croatian recruit, to a recurrence of a minor knee injury mid way through the first half.

Cudicini, once of Lazio and Milan, performed capably and made one fine save from Lee Hendrie soon after half time. He was otherwise largely untroubled, which must have come as a relief after a torrid opening period during which Nilis seemed to be waging a personal vendetta against him.

The arrival of the 32-year-old Belgian on a Bosman free transfer from PSV Einhoven tended to be overshadowed by Gregory's Ginola coup, not to mention the controversy over Chelsea's interest in the Villa captain, Gareth Southgate. Less than match-fit but pressing into service because of Ginola's absence, Nilis produced skills of which the former Tottenham favourite would have been proud, never more so than when he put Villa ahead.

The build-up was untypically fluid. Dion Dublin sent Alan Wright scampering down the left flank, from where the wing-back crossed low towards the near post. Despite being under pressure from Frank leboeuf, Nilis's first touch flicked the ball into the air. His second, the sweetest of left-footed volleys, lifted it thunderously beyond Cudicini.

Briefly, gleefully, Villa belied Ken Bates's description of them after the Wembley final as "A two bob team." Nilis, wriggling clear of the error-prone Leboeuf, brought a good save from Cudicini while Dublin headed wide from a centre by Merson, the only player to rise above the mediocrity for the full 90 minutes.

Chelsea appeared to be suffering a hangover from Valley Parade. For a side capable of passing the ball better than anyone in the division, they gave it away with alarming regularity, but there was at least a doggedness about them which enabled them to draw level.

Desailly's goal was eerily reminiscent of the one which won the Cup in that James came for a Dennis Wise corner but neither caught it nor cleared the danger. Gregory later argued that his keeper, recalled to England's squad for Saturday's friendly in France, was impeded by Tore Andre Flo. Perhaps so, but James did not assert himself forcibly enough for such a big man.

Chelsea had a greater share of possession in the second half and chances to win the game in the final 10 minutes. One shot by Flo gave James a chance to redeem himself with an excellent reflex save. Then, in the closing seconds, Eidur Gudjohnsen, who had replaced the ineffectual Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, again set up Flo only for the Norwegian's angled chip to drift wide.

Gregory conceded that Villa were "a bit fortunate" to hold out, but on an afternoon of curdled ambition, he could take heart from the prospect of Nilis and Ginola raising Villa above the two-bob bracket this season.

Goals: Nilis (10) 1-0; Desailly (30) 1-1.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): James; Alpay, Southgate, Barry; Stone, Merson, Boateng, Hendrie (Taylor 88) Wright; Dublin, Nilis (Joachim, 70). Substitutes not used: Ehiogu, Samuel, Enckleman (gk).

Chelsea (4-4-2): Cudicini; Panucci, Leboeuf, Desailly, Babayaro; Stanic (Morris, 26), Di Matteo, Wise, Poyet; Hasselbaink (Gudjohnsen, 77) Flo. Substitutes not used: Zola, Thome, Hitchcock (gk).

Referee: Paul Durkin (Dorset).

Booking: Chelsea: Hasselbaink.

Man of the Match: Merson.

Attendance: 27,056.

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