Premiership artisans taught lesson in the defensive arts

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It did not take a genius to predict that, as September cooled into October, the top three teams in the Premiership would be Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. Domestically, whatever yesterday's results at Anfield and Old Trafford, that trio are in a league of their own, but when the competition concerned is the Champions' League, the tale is a very different one.

This week, tails are between English legs, with each of the three contenders in the bottom half of their group table, having managed one point and one decidedly dodgy penalty between them for a week's work in European competition. Meanwhile, Italian and Spanish sides have played 16 games in total, not losing a single one.

Only Arsenal have taken any satisfaction from the week, which in their case stems from managing an improvement on the previous result, the 3-0 drubbing on their own pitch by Internazionale. Had their fixtures been reversed, the lamentation would have been even stronger than that of Chelsea and United, both of whom did at least manage to win their opening games, against the weakest teams in the section.

As it was, the latter pair - like Arsenal against Inter - were forced to acknowledge their shortcomings in the area of the game that tends to decide results at the highest club level: defending.

In the Stamford Bridge programme for Wednesday's game against Besiktas of Turkey, Chelsea's captain, Marcel Desailly, picked his best current World XI. While his choice of Ashley Cole at left-back was presumably a subtle joke, the rest of the defence plus goalkeeper was based, with total justification, on Italian clubs: Francesco Toldo (Inter), Lilian Thuram (Juventus), Fabio Cannavaro (Inter) and Paolo Maldini (Milan). Other contenders from Champions' League clubs alone might be Inter's Javier Zanetti, Milan's Alessandro Nesta, or from Bayern Munich the French pair Willy Sagnol and Bixente Lizarazu; but the case for any English club representatives looks weaker than ever.

Desailly's brief in picking his dream team was to ignore any Chelsea players, in order to avoid embarrassment either to them or him. It was just as well, given the way the team performed against a useful if unambitious Besiktas side reduced to 10 men. Sadly, it is a long time since the 35-year-old Frenchman was a serious contender for any World XI, as his part in the second goal confirmed; he failed totally to read the flight of a long clearance, then slipped as he turned, whereupon Carlo Cudicini - supposedly the Premiership's best goalkeeper - charged out and missed the ball.

"The way we conceded the goals, we have to be stronger," Desailly admitted later. Sitting alongside his manager, Claudio Ranieri, he declined to blame the 3-5-2 system suddenly imposed on the team with minimal practice time, though it was an extraordinary decision even for a tactical Tinkerman. The new defensive alignment clearly did have something to do with the first goal; Géremi, whose unfamiliar duties as a wing-back should have included stopping opponents breaking down his flank, stood instead in a defen-sive wall; there was no right-back to prevent Ibrahim Uzul- mez collecting the free-kick and crossing for Sergen Yalcin, poorly marked, to score.

As Besiktas's wily old coach, Mircea Lucescu, said: "At the moment the new players are not integrated and are not knowing exactly what each other are doing." That will be hard enough to achieve while Ranieri continues to rotate them, and is all the more reason to provide a fixed tactical framework. Nor will it help if he uses all his substitutes before the second half has begun; this was not the first time Chelsea have been unable to take off an injured player.

Any Sky Sports viewers who had given up on the London side at half-time and turned to Manchester United's game in Stuttgart might have caught Sir Alex Ferguson's assessment at the interval: "In the main we've been in good control of the match. The important thing is to keep our discipline." The next Scottish voice to be heard, almost as soon as the game resumed, was Andy Gray's: "That was awful goalkeeping."

Tim Howard eventually redeemed himself from his howler in missing a corner that Paul Scholes headed off the line, and could not be faulted for either of the German goals, but the rest of the defence could. Rio Ferdinand and Mikaël Silvestre were too far apart for the first after Gary Neville lost a headed challenge, and John O'Shea offered no cover for the second, Neville having surrendered possession. No one quite dared ask Ferguson what he thought of the discipline.

Arsène Wenger for once had reason to be proud of Arsenal's against Lokomotiv Moscow, though it will be a while before we know whether the goalless draw to follow the Inter débâcle represented a point gained or two dropped. "I don't know which," Wenger said. ITV's Ron Atkinson does: "A game wasted".

And so, after a pause for internationals, the Uefa Cup and such minor domestic matters as Arsenal against Chelsea and two meetings between United and Leeds, come the sometimes decisive Champions' League double-headers: Chelsea-Lazio, Dynamo Kiev-Arsenal, and the eagerly awaited Rangers-United. England's challengers must take a minimum of four points each over the two games, and the defending will need to be more Italianate all round.