The inconsistent denizens of Fulham Road

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The Independent Online
The Fulham Road is an odd place to find a football club. Most English grounds are shoe-horned between terraced streets or parked on industrial estates. Stamford Bridge muscles in on bijou mews cottages and cosy antique shops.

Possibly only St James' Park is as close to the hub of a city - and Newcastle United have a place in Novocastrian hearts that Chelsea could never emulate in London.

However, the West End location has enabled Chelsea to create their own niche in football's image market. The emergence of Osgood, Hudson, Cooke and company at the same time as the King's Road was the centre of the "swinging sixties" gave the club a glamorous air. So strong was the connection even two decades of failure, a lot of dismal football and a bit of hooliganism has not dispelled it.

However, there is a case for arguing that this image has affected Chelsea's playing performance. It is a club which thrives on the big occasions, against the bread-and-butter sides both players and supporters struggle to be motivated.

Matthew Harding, the club's well-known director, complains that when he is offering his season tickets around people want to know who the opposition are before deciding to go. "I go to watch Chelsea, not the other side," he moans. While Arsenal sell out regardless of opposition Chelsea mix 31,000 full houses - as in Saturday's 2-2 draw with Liverpool - with gates of below 20,000, as against Bolton.

Inconsistency is as much a part of Chelsea's history as the colour blue. In Saturday's match programme Bobby Tambling recalled knocking Liverpool (the holders) and Leeds (the runners-up) out of the 1966 FA Cup only, he said, "of course we went and did a real Chelsea and lost to... who was it?" [unfancied Sheffield Wednesday].

In another feature the celebrity supporter, Heartbeat actor Derek Foulds, notes: "they don't string matches together; they'll go into the cup and Walsall will beat them the week after they've beaten Liverpool."

That inconsistency has been evident in recent weeks. Five weeks ago Hoddle must have looked at the fixture list and wondered if could call in a favour from his friend upstairs. Chelsea were due to meet the Premiership's top five with an injury list so long the physio must have wished the summer's extensions included the treatment room as well as the pitch.

Maybe Hoddle did ask for divine intervention, for Chelsea have come through that quintet of matches unbeaten. They even defeated the leaders, Newcastle, and led at Manchester United and Arsenal.

Good results, so why is no one talking about Chelsea being contenders? The 16-point gap between them and Newcastle is the obvious answer, but let us imagine that was halved. Would anyone entertain the prospect of Chelsea stringing together a title-winning sequence of victories? No, yet it is suggested that Liverpool, who are 10 points behind Newcastle, could do so.

A glance at the comparative honours' lists shows why. Liverpool - 18 titles; Chelsea - one, and that 40 years ago. They have only finished in the top five eight times in a 90-year history. Look in that run of recent results and there is another, less impressive one, last week's home defeat to a Wimbledon side reduced to 10 men and without a win in 16 games.

To be fair that was Chelsea's only defeat in the last eight. It has taken two-and-a-half years, partly due to injuries and partly due to some curious signings, but Chelsea are beginning to play the way Hoddle wants them to.

The recent purchase of Dan Petrescu has made a difference, the Romanian is perfectly suited to play at right wing-back. The other flank has proved a problem, Andy Dow was the sixth left wing-back tried this season but, once Terry Phelan or Scott Minto are fit, that difficulty should be eased.

In the event Dow impressed, as did Mike Duberry and David Lee, two youth products who are playing so well Ruud Gullit has moved to a forward role. The promise of the youth system (though Lee is from an earlier generation), and Hoddle's ability to attract players like Gullit, augurs well for Chelsea's future. So does the current cease-fire in the director's box.

Less encouraging is Hoddle's inability to sign a goalscorer. John Spencer's two goals on Saturday made him the club's top scorer - with five. Three Hoddle signings, Paul Furlong, Mark Hughes and Mark Stein, have four between them.

Not that the team's shape lends itself to goalscoring. It is basically one-up and a packed midfield. With Hughes suspended, Furlong played the lone forward role. It was not a success. He worked his heart out, and showed good movement, but his poor control renders him unsuited to such a role. One moment in the first half summed him up: he span off his defender and ran intelligently into space, then Gullit's delicate chip bounced off the back of his head.

But Furlong was involved in Chelsea's opener, laying the ball off to Petrescu whose cross was thrillingly volleyed in by an airborne Spencer. If Mark Wright was at fault then his centre-back partners, Steve Harkness and John Scales, were culpable when Spencer struck again, brushing them aside to slide in Eddie Newton's hooked through ball.

The Liverpool trio had an unhappy afternoon, each being booked for fouls, but it could have been worse. Spencer missed a good chance between his goals and, after Liverpool had equalised for the second time, also hit a post. That precipitated a closing burst in which Wise unbelievably missed a close-range header from Gullit's perfect cross then the Dutchman himself volleyed weakly after Scales had mis-kicked.

That burst of action, and similar spells at the beginning, and after Liverpool's first goal, suggested that, had Chelsea been bolder, they would have won. As it was they sat on both their leads, allowing Liverpool to come at them with predictable results.

That both of Liverpool's equalisers were scored by Steve McManaman from 20 yards might suggest Chelsea had their tactics right - but Liverpool spend a lot of time on shooting practice and have a good conversion record.

McManaman, who could have won the game but for an injury-time tackle from Duberry, will have impressed the watching Terry Venables. The England coach will also have been encouraged by Rob Jones' accomplished performance at left-back. With Graeme Le Saux injured, Jones' versatility solves one problem. Only a few more to go.

Goal: Spencer (9) 1-0; McManaman (33) 1-1; Spencer (45) 2-1; McManaman (77) 2-2.

Chelsea (3-5-1-1): Kharin; Duberry, Lee, Clarke; Petrescu, Gullit, Newton, Wise, Dow; Spencer, Furlong (Peacock, 85). Substitutes not used: Spackman, Hitchcock (gk).

Liverpool (3-5-2): James; Wright, Scales, Harkness; McAteer, McManaman, Thomas, Barnes, R Jones; Collymore, Fowler. Substitutes not used: Clough, Kennedy, Pears (gk).

Referee: K Burge (Mid-Glamorgan).

Bookings: Liverpool: Harkness, Wright, Scales.

Man of the match: Spencer.

Attendance: 31,137.

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