Kinnear content on long road to Wembley

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The Independent Online
Even discounting present poor form, Chelsea are not in a strong position to assess how to overcome Wimbledon in their FA Cup semi-final at Highbury today. Leicester City are. So far this season Chelsea have played Wimbledon only once, a Premiership game last October that they lost 4-2 at Stamford Bridge. Leicester have played them four times and not been beaten. Simple facts that belie a lot of homework on the part of Martin O'Neill, not to speak of his team's now famous guts and resolve which today Chelsea will need to emulate in spite of Wimbledon's similar dip in form.

Ruud Gullit's laid-back style of touchline coaching and O'Neill's hyper- active involvement, which was never more hyper than at Wembley in last weekend's Coca-Cola Cup final against Middlesbrough, immediately suggest that when it comes to cup ties, Gullit, by comparison, clearly lacks contact with his players when they need to produce another bead of sweat or an outstretched foot in some last-minute goalmouth confusion. Leicester are remarkably good at that, but Gullit's Chelsea sometimes give the impression that it's a bit beneath them to scuffle.

"You must keep lifting your team," O'Neill said, "especially when concentration is interrupted." Joe Kinnear, at Wimbledon, has the same outlook. "You have to keep challenging them not to think they can ease off. Last weekend at Spurs they took their foot off the pedal - I can't accept that." Gullit tends to leave most of the haranguing to his deputy, Graham Rix.

One of Wimbledon's most embarrassing defeats of the season came early last month when they were flying high but getting vertigo. Vinnie Jones and three other regulars were missing and they went down 3-1 at home to a Leicester side O'Neill cleverly lifted with his usual combination of wit, cold criticism and sarcasm after they had been controversially eliminated from the FA Cup by Chelsea and were themselves without several important members of the side, not least Steve Claridge and Ian Marshall. Yet to suggest that there has been any master plan behind Leicester's success over Wimbledon this season is not something O'Neill would recognise. He admires Wimbledon's spirit as much as that of his own side. Indeed, before the season started he even took Leicester to the same Navy training camp, a place far from the five-star hotels that these days most players expect - especially if they come from Italy.

Chelsea have been warned that the result of Wimbledon and Leicester's similar outlook is that both teams are capable of playing a sound passing game knowing that in the end O'Neill's motto "chase and harry" is the cornerstone of their best performances. But if towards the end of a stalemate the only way out is to indulge in the long ball, neither O'Neill nor Kinnear make apologies for that. After all, they have never paid millions to acquire any of the world's most intricate ball players, yet last week O'Neill was reaping praise for stopping Middlesbrough's Juninho having any chance to exploit his expensive skills. Until the last few weeks Wimbledon were still doing that sort of thing most of the time, and earlier in the season they achieved their seventh successive victory over Chelsea with that 4-2 win. Towards the end there was one of those delightful moments of Wimbledon pantomime when the club's owner, Sam Hamman, ran down to Kinnear, who was on the touchline, to tell him to stop anyone else scoring because there was no way he could afford any more bonuses.

Gullit himself is of the opinion that Wimbledon have never really changed from the team of past reputation. "When we play them we know it's going to be a fair battle, but we play in a totally different way," he said rather loftily. "It's a credit to them that they have done so well - they do it only by hard work". Kinnear constantly riles at any such accusation that Wimbledon's long establishment in the top division could have been sustained on aimless long-ball football or even simple enthusiasm, but sometimes it helps.

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