Panucci class improves Chelsea's credentials

Italian defender hopes to impress at Wembley
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The Independent Online

For a good few minutes - and a few good minutes - all was sweetness and light towards the media at Chelsea's training ground on the Heathrow flight path yesterday. Before tomorrow's Charity Shield match against Manchester United, charity began at home as Dennis Wise and Graeme Le Saux presented a cheque for £11,350 to the children's ward of Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, which had come from payments for interviews before the FA Cup final. "Thanks to you chaps," said a beaming Wise, who has not always had cause to rush to the newsagents with any great degree of anticipation.

For a good few minutes - and a few good minutes - all was sweetness and light towards the media at Chelsea's training ground on the Heathrow flight path yesterday. Before tomorrow's Charity Shield match against Manchester United, charity began at home as Dennis Wise and Graeme Le Saux presented a cheque for £11,350 to the children's ward of Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, which had come from payments for interviews before the FA Cup final. "Thanks to you chaps," said a beaming Wise, who has not always had cause to rush to the newsagents with any great degree of anticipation.

Yesterday's interviews with Gianluca Vialli and his newest import, Christian Panucci, were free, but carried a sting in the tail. Panucci, as urbane as befits a former resident of Milan and Madrid, was initially friendly and even prepared as things progressed to dispense with the services of an interpreter. Before finishing, however, he made clear his annoyance with reports suggesting that he had favoured moving to Roma rather than Chelsea because they were a bigger club. "'Panucci says that Chelsea is not big team' is not reality," he insisted. "Chelsea for me is a good team who want to win the Premiership and I am happy to be here."

He is clearly not a man to trifle with, as a good number of Premiership attackers are likely to discover once he has regained full fitness after having trained with Internazionale's youth team for the past three weeks. That banishment was a result of a dispute with Inter's coach, Marcello Lippi, who fell foul of the right-back's stubborn streak when wanting to play him on the left. Panucci declined and paid a heavy price: having appeared in every one of Italy's qualifying matches for Euro 2000, he found himself dropped from Inter's first team and reluctantly omitted from the squad for the Low Countries this summer by Dino Zoff.

The obvious move appeared to be to Roma, where he could have linked up for a third time with Fabio Capello, the coach under whom he won European Cup medals with both Milan and then Real Madrid. That depended, however, on the Roman club unloading their Brazilian right-back Antonio Carlos Zago to Milan, which was politically undesirable. "I had a phone call from Gianluca about a month ago and told him I had options with other clubs," Panucci said. "Then after complications with Roma I decided to come to Chelsea. There's a lot of Italian players here, but the most important thing is to come to a club that hopes to win the championship."

He is clearly used to big city life and, as with other Continental players lured to Highbury and Stamford Bridge, London's attractions are positive ones. "I've also played in Madrid which was a great experience for me as a player and a person and I hope London will be the same. When I went to Madrid it was the best experience of my life. I like to dive into situations - I remember going into shops and trying to speak Spanish without really knowing what I was saying. I'm always challenging myself and trying to keep myself under pressure."

Losing his international place hurt badly and winning it back was one of three priorities in the coming seasonnow that a year-long loan to Chelsea has been tied up and his girlfriend has become pregnant: "I hope life will present me with a son and a championship title.

"The only reason Zoff did not select me was that I hadn't been playing for Inter. Now it's[Giovanni] Trapattoni in charge, I don't know what ideas he has, but I can only prove myself worthy of selection."

With his experience, defensive strength and versatility - he will happily play at right back, wing-back or in central defence, if not left-back - the 27-year-old has the qualities to become one of Vialli's more successful buys and will be on the bench tomorrow. The Chelsea manager, who was looking for a replacement for Dan Petrescu, says of him: "He's a player who's won championships and European Cups, and an Italian international, so it was too good an opportunity to miss. I think we've made a very good deal for a player of such calibre. A loan for one year is fantastic and if he's happy after that we can start thinking about making it longer."

Now for the Premiership title, the Azzurri and a baby boy. It's quite a wish list.

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