Neither side looked particularly effective as far as controlling freedom of movement was concerned yesterday, but it was not until 14 minutes from the end of a game that always promised goals that their border controls were breached.
If the Professional Footballers' Association is to be believed, it will soon be a statistic worthy of note that the winning goal was scored by an Englishman. They predict a flood of cheap foreign talent squeezing out domestic talent. Yet the merits of foreign influence on our game could hardly have been made more clear by that goal, which was entirely crafted by a Dutch master and provided a vivid illustration of the reason British clubs have been so eager to sign up European talent.
Ruud Gullit was not even expected to feature in this game after only a week back in training and a single reserve team outing. But playing in a free-ranging midfield role, he had already shown glimpses of his old class before setting up the decider. As the City manager, Alan Ball, admitted, the inexperience of his young left-back Rae Ingram also played a part, Gullit dispossessing him and then, strolling to the by-line with the languid air of a man out for an amble along an Amsterdam canal.
A sudden surge of power and he had cut in to slide the ball on to Gavin Peacock's toe for a simple tap-in. Peacock has also been a long-term injury victim and would not have played but for a chest infection that struck down Dennis Wise in the morning. In the event, the double gamble of the Chelsea manager, Glenn Hoddle, on the maker and scorer paid off handsomely.
The same could not be said of all the effort - including talking to the European Court of Justice - that City had put into winning the right to play an extra foreigner during the week.
Starting with two Germans, Eike Immel and Uwe Rosler, plus the Georgian Georgi Kinkladze on the field, they were full of early menace, Rosler and Gerry Creaney missing excellent chances in the first six minutes.
Chelsea gradually asserted themselves after that shaky beginning and made and missed the best of the subsequent chances, with John Spencer - from a superb Gullit pass - Dan Petrescu and Mark Hughes the most guilty men.
Rosler was suffering from flu symptoms at half-time and when he was replaced by the Dane Ronnie Ekelund, the extra European that all the fuss had been about, City lost their way. Ekelund is a player of proven ability and will doubtless contribute much to a City season which is once more drifting towards a dogfight. It would hardly have been possible for him to have a quieter first half hour in the light blue, however: there were long gaps between his rare moments of involvement in the game.
Chelsea were moving the ball around with growing confidence, with only the 18-year-old Michael Brown in City's midfield giving them much of a tussle. Their Gullit-inspired winner was the mark of a side which had turned around both their season and this particular contest.
"I had to gamble with three centre-forwards," Ball said. "And when you do that you rely on them finding the net. We were light in midfield and the midfield was overrun a bit at times."
City's revival has gone into reverse, with the life-saving run of five matches without defeat giving way to a worrying sequence of three without a win, which has obviously encouraged Ball to cast his net wide in search of more depth for his squad.
But winning matches can sometimes hinge on one man being in the right place once - as Gullit would confirm.Reuse content