A THREADBARE, rutted pitch, with more undulations than a Page Three girl, has superseded Gianfranco Zola's groin injury as Chelsea's chief concern ahead of tonight's European Cup-Winners' Cup final against VfB Stuttgart in the Rasunda Stadium.
Gianluca Vialli, the Chelsea player-manager, was optimistic that his compatriot will be fit to partner him. But his players were clearly taken aback by their first sight of the playing surface. Franck Leboeuf, who recognises baldness when he sees it, expressed the hope that it would not preclude Chelsea's ``sexy football'', while Mark Hughes spoke eloquently of the need to ``tart it up a bit'' with a heavy roller.
Vialli was forewarned when Patrick Vieira, the Arsenal midfielder, complained after France's match with Sweden here last month that he was glad he had played for only 20 minutes. Vieira likened conditions to the lunar landscape that is West Ham's Upton Park.
Nevertheless, Zola's unexpectedly swift recovery, aided by a masseur in Rimini, means that Vialli should be able to field the line up he wants as Chelsea strive to secure the second trophy of his three-month reign. Graeme Le Saux (calf strain) is the only other doubt.
It is 27 years since the Cup-Winners' Cup last found its way to Stamford Bridge, after victory over Real Madrid in Athens. Whether or not Vialli is aware how close they came to the old Third Division in the interim is unknown, but he was right when he said: ``A lot of things have happened since then.''
Now, however, Chelsea stand on the brink of England's first European success since Arsenal claimed the same prize four years ago. ``We've had an excellent season,'' Vialli said. ``It's up to us to make it extraordinary.''
Chelsea will certainly have the advantage in vocal support. Upwards of 12,000 fans have followed them over, compared with an anticipated 4,000 from Stuttgart. Yet they would be ill advised to interpret the disparity as an indication of a lack of desire in the German side.
Both clubs finished fourth in their domestic championship and each rely heavily on the overseas influence. Indeed, the rival squads contain players of 20 different nationalities. Stuttgart, like Chelsea, are better going forward than defending and in Fredi Bobic, the German international, they too have a striker who has shrugged off a serious-looking injury.
The similarities even extend to boardroom level. Stuttgart's president, Gerhard Mayer-Vorfelder, has some of Ken Bates' idiosyncrasies. In a manner not unlike the Chelsea chairman, who hoist Ruud Gullit by his own PR, he has warned his coach, Joachim Low, that he may be on his way unless their first European silverware is forthcoming.
Although Chelsea were involved in only three draws in 38 Premiership fixtures, the history of such occasions points to a tense, low-scoring affair. If the game goes to extra time, it could be settled by a ``golden goal''. Otherwise, it is down to the lottery of penalties.
The onus is on the creative players to produce the spark that could prevent stalemate. Stuttgart will look to Krassimir Balakov, the volatile Bulgarian playmaker who was voted the Bundesliga's ``most valuable player'' by readers of Kicker magazine.
Chelsea, meanwhile, need the lissom Gustavo Poyet to live up to his recent form. The Uruguayan is a Cup-Winners' Cup specialist, having helped Real Zaragoza knock them out at the semi-final stage three years ago before gaining a winner's medal against Arsenal in Paris.
In the home leg against Vicenza last month, Poyet's first start since he damaged cruciate ligaments in October, he scored the first goal in Chelsea's fightback.
Poyet is well-placed to assess the difference between the present, polyglot band and the '95 team managed by Glenn Hoddle. ``Chelsea are better now,'' he said. ``When I was with Zaragoza they played like a normal English team with a lot of long balls and a big forward [Paul Furlong]. Now it's changed a lot. There are so many foreigners.''
Unless that antithesis of the "big forward", Zola, fails to make it, Tore Andre Flo and Mark Hughes will be on the bench. The Welsh warrior, 34, has not started a match in Europe this season, but will probably be summoned for what may prove his swan-song in Chelsea blue.
Chelsea (probable, 4-4-2): De Goey; Clarke, Leboeuf, Duberry, Le Saux; Petrescu, Di Matteo, Wise, Poyet; Vialli, Zola.
VfB Stuttgart (probable, 1-2-5-2): Wohlfahrt; Yakin; Schneider, Berthold; Haber, Soldo, Balakov, Poschner, Hagner; Bobic, Akpoborie.
Referee: S Braschi (Italy).
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