Poyet launches Chelsea's charge

Butt dismissed as champions suffer their first defeat of 1999 at the hands of Vialli's rampant title challengers
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The Independent Football

THERE IS a still a long way to go, more than seven months, and only a fool would write off Manchester United, but there was just a suspicion in west London yesterday that we had seen a changing of the Premiership guard.

THERE IS a still a long way to go, more than seven months, and only a fool would write off Manchester United, but there was just a suspicion in west London yesterday that we had seen a changing of the Premiership guard.

That Chelsea finally unleashed the torrent of goals they have been threatening for weeks is significant in itself. That it was Manchester United, champions of England and Europe, who were on the receiving end made the result reverberate around the country. They did, admittedly, finish with 10 men, Nicky Butt having been sent off for a stupid kick at Dennis Wise, but they were two goals down and struggling when he went.

Leeds United, winners at Watford yesterday, may be top of the Premiersip and United still second, but Chelsea are fourth with a brace of games in hand and a bucketful of confidence. This was their biggest win over Manchester United and their first at Stamford Bridge in eight encounters.

It is also nine months, 15 days and 30 matches since United last lost in the Premiership - against Middlesbrough before last Christmas - but the most telling statistic is that they have used four goalkeepers in that time, three this season.

None has looked secure and this has spread confusion from the back and undermined the belly of the team. Massimio Taibi, the £4.5m September signing from Venezia, was in goal yesterday and if he thought Chelsea's Italian enclave would be a hospitable venue he was mistaken.

For the third time in his four matches he made a serious error, this time in the first minute. Perhaps he was trying too hard to prove himself, for he rushed from his goal in vain pursuit of a deep cross from Dan Petrescu. The ball was 15 feet from his line and Gustavo Poyet arrived there first, jumping above Denis Irwin to steer the ball into the untenanted net.

It was the start Chelsea, so profligate in front of goal in recent weeks, needed if they were to give full rein to their passing. However, they were helped in this by Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to use Phil Neville to man-mark Gianfranco Zola. The Italian immediately pushed up on United's centre-halves, leaving the visitors outnumbered in midfield.

Chris Sutton and Zola both had chances before, 16 minutes into the game, a quick free-kick was worked to Zola who, like Petrescu earlier, was able to cross at leisure. Neville was picking up Sutton but he was unable to prevent him rising to head inside the near post. It was his first league goal and the first by any Chelsea forward since 11 August.

United were roused from their torpor with Ed De Goey having to save from Scholes but, just as they began to move forward, Butt saw red. Caught by a heavy challenge from Wise, and some verbals and a sly pinch as well, he reacted by kicking the Chelsea captain.

Paul Scholes should have followed him five minutes later for kicking Sutton but this time Dermot Gallagher either turned a blind eye or missed it. With Sutton heading wide from Albert Ferrer's cross United survived until half-time but conceded again 10 minutes after it.

This time a free-kick was rolled square and square again before reaching Franck Lebouef. He rolled the ball in to Celestine Babayaro, then followed up to shoot after the ball ran free. Taibi saved this time but could not hold on and Poyet tapped in the rebound. It was soon four, Zola beating Mikael Silvestre on the right before sliding in a cross that Henning Berg, with Sutton on his shoulder, had to play but diverted in.

Taibi twice saved from Petrescu before, with eight minutes left, Chelsea completed the rout. As if to underline their depth the goal was fashioned by two substitutes, Graeme Le Saux and Tore Andre Flo, and scored by a third, Jody Morris. In one match Chelsea had scored as many goals as they had in the previous eight.

"It is a boost for our confidence," Gianluca Vialli said before heading off, on the back of a motorbike, for Heathrow and what will doubtless be an unusually relaxed few days break in Italy.

He added: "We know we can play well against the champions of Europe and score goals. I'm very happy with our performance, we were almost perfect, but there is still a long way to go."

That was the post-match theme. No gloating, no moping. "It was one of those days," said Sir Alex, who would not comment on the goalkeeping situation or the dismissal. "We just have to bite the bullet and get on with it, we were well-beaten."

Ferguson, who said David Beckham and Scholes were carrying injuries but would report to England today, added: "The important thing about adversity is how you react. Normally when we get a jolt we respond very well. Hopefully that is a reminder to us how hard it is to win the title."

Chris Sutton concluded: "We were well up for this game but we'll only know if the gap has been closed by the end of the season. They're a very good side and I'm sure they'll bounce back."

Indeed. Last time Manchester United lost 5-0, to Newcastle United three years ago this month, they went on to win the championship by seven points. Time will tell if this is also just a blip or something more significant.

Goals: Poyet (1) 1-0; Sutton (16) 2-0; Poyet (55) 3-0; Berg (og, 59) 4-0; Morris (82) 5-0.

Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Ferrer, Hogh, Lebouef, Babayaro; Petrescu (Le Saux, 77), Deschamps, Wise (Morris, 65), Poyet; Zola (Flo, 69), Sutton. Substitutes not used: Lambourde, Cudicini (gk).

Manchester United (4-1-3-2): Taibi; Irwin, Berg, Stam, Silvestre; P Neville; Beckham (Wilson, 65), Scholes (Sheringham, 65), Butt; Yorke, Cole (Solskjaer, 65). Substitutes not used: Clegg, van der Gouw (gk).

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

Bookings: Chelsea: Wise, Deschamps. Manchester United: Scholes. Sending-off: Butt.

Man of the match: Deschamps.

Attendance: 34,909.