Stanic gives instant return to Chelsea

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The Independent Football

Uneasy lay the head that wears the pretenders' crown for much of yesterday afternoon. Lax defensive work meant that Chelsea, the favourites to push Manchester United hardest this season, could never rest until Mario Stanic finally subdued a dogged West Ham with the second goal of his first Premiership match. In the end their attacking power, with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink adding a penalty to his Charity Shield goal against United, told, which bodes well after the failure to score enough in the last few campaigns.

Uneasy lay the head that wears the pretenders' crown for much of yesterday afternoon. Lax defensive work meant that Chelsea, the favourites to push Manchester United hardest this season, could never rest until Mario Stanic finally subdued a dogged West Ham with the second goal of his first Premiership match. In the end their attacking power, with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink adding a penalty to his Charity Shield goal against United, told, which bodes well after the failure to score enough in the last few campaigns.

Gianluca Vialli also believes that greater ruthlessness is required and he had shown the first sign of it himself by dropping Frank Leboeuf for some untimely remarks about the manager in midweek. Unfortunately, it may have been a little early to thrust the replacement Christian Panucci in at this level after a few weeks of training with the youth team at Internazionale, where he had fallen out of favour. The Italian found the leggy Frederic Kanoute a handful and was not helped by Marcel Desailly, who sometimes seemed to have adopted the attitude of his now departed countryman Didier Deschamps that it is only necessary to play at 50 per cent in England.

There was much encouragement for West Ham, unable to match the big spenders but still optimistic about finishing in the top 10 three years running for the first time in their history. Yesterday they had to do without Rio Ferdinand, for whom this is such an important season, so Stuart Pearce made a characteristically swift return after breaking a leg for the second time as recently as March. Shaka Hislop, who also broke a leg last season, was also fit enough to take his place and became the central figure of the first-half drama, for his challenge as Hasselbaink raced towards a corner of the penalty area. The goalkeeper believed that any contact he made was outside the area but the referee, Graham Barber, refused to give him the benefit of what must have been a doubt. Hasselbaink, who had earlier ballooned two shots too high with the new, lighter football, gave the penalty kick sufficient power while keeping it low enough to defeat Hislop.

It was hard on the visitors, who had created their share of bother with a formation featuring Paolo di Canio just behind Kanoute and the lively Davor Suker. Suker might have scored within three minutes of his debut, picking up Desailly's loose pass and forcing Ed de Goey to beat out his shot. Hislop's only notable work on either side of the penalty was to push away Roberto di Matteo's fierce drive following a left-wing corner.

The equaliser, when it came only two minutes into the second half, was therefore well deserved. Suker began the move, with two deft touches on the halfway line, before clipping a pass towards Kanoute in the inside-right channel. Astonishingly, Suker and Di Canio were then left utterly unmarked as Kanoute - sometimes not the most aware of strikers - found the Italian for a sweet finish. It had the feeling of a slow-motion goal, and Vialli must have been furious at how slow his defenders' motion was. "We got a bit sloppy every now and then," he admitted later, "but we are not at our best yet."

Fine goals in the 59th and 78th minutes suggested there is not much wrong with the attack. First Igor Stimac fouled Gustavo Poyet in the "D" and Hasselbaink set up Gianfranco Zola for a curled right-footer comfortably wide of Hislop. Although De Goey had to parry Kanoute's shot after more casualness on the part of Desailly, and was beaten by Suker's header, which drifted the wrong side of a post, Chelsea breathed more easily for a while once Stanic lobbed the ball up for himself and volleyed it masterfully in from 25 yards. But after Kanoute headed in Di Canio's corner and Joe Cole was belatedly sent on, the pretenders were hanging on until Stanic's second goal, from a Di Matteo free-kick, settled matters.

"I thought we were every bit as good as Chelsea and if we can come here and match them, we can give anyone a game," said West Ham's Harry Redknapp. "The referee said he had only one look at the penalty, but if he's not sure, he shouldn't give it, should he?''

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