So far this season they have played acceptably well only once in the Premiership, against Nottingham Forest last Saturday when Gianfranco Zola almost made you believe that the cost in suppressed home-produced talent was a price worth paying for not having to travel far to see such international talent. But then at Stamford Bridge on Thursday they played Helsingborg, at present only the fourth best team in Sweden, in defence of their European Cup-Winners' Cup trophy, and dropped Zola. They also made six other changes. "They", of course, really means Gianluca Vialli, the player-manager of a group of expensive performers in search of a team.
A 1-0 win through Franck Leboeuf's somewhat fortunate free-kick was not a victory, just a laboured journey that, nevertheless, will almost certainly finish successfully in the second leg in Sweden. On their own ground, Helsingborg will have to commit more than one man to attack, risk pushing forward and will doubtless see someone punish them.
Who that someone will be is not even known to Vialli who, from the expression on his face and the tension in his voice on Thursday night, is beginning to discover that keeping 22 highly expensive players happy with talk of their importance in a squad system is a waste of breath. Not only that, the fans' expectancy level has never been higher and their frustration grows by the match.
Vialli did the right thing after being the main culprit on a night of a dozen missed goals by taking much of the blame himself. But his attempt to justify his wholesale voluntary changes (only Dan Petrescu was unavailable for selection because of suspension) on the basis that in a long season you have to make sure that the bulk of the squad do not end up midway through the term all tired at the same time, was far from convincing. Clearly, he brought in Brian Laudrup and Tore Andre Flo because they had made it public knowledge that they did not sign for Chelsea simply to sit around.
Anyone not in Vialli's position, which is admittedly unenviable, of trying to keep everyone happy would, at this stage, declare that Chelsea's considerable ambitions would best be served by giving an extended run to the best team. In other words stick with the men who have shown the greatest consistency so far: Zola and Gustavo Poyet, who are indispensable, and after them Flo, who is not only a brave leader of the line but has outstanding ball skills, Pierluigi Casiraghi, who will find his goalscoring form, and Brian Laudrup.
Vialli himself has already found out why the combined responsibilities of the player-manager have so rarely been successfully undertaken. Thursday night could not have made the point more loudly, because it was the first time that Laudrup had been given the chance to show his skills over a whole match. His service for Vialli was such that the Italian should have collected several goals.
Laudrup has now made his case for a permanent place in the team. His confusing ability to take the ball to the point at which it seems certain he can only run it over the goal-line yet still make an accurate centre is one of the great joys of watching the modern game. Had Chelsea provided him with a target at the far post, he would have had an easier task in finding the strikers.
More than anyone, Laudrup justified the remark of the Swedish coach, Age Hareide, who said that Chelsea had individuals who were world class but needed to play together to form an understanding. That is easier said than done when the understanding of so many players bought by Chelsea over the past two years was that they would virtually be sure of first- team football.Reuse content