MILAN, WATFORD, Berlin. Spot the odd one out. When Gianluca Vialli first computed his forces for the Champions' League campaign, he doubtless gave barely a thought to the sort of quirky little fixture which could ruin Chelsea's much-touted chances of winning the Premier League title. A painful defeat by Watford later, their first since March, and Chelsea were brought crashing back to the realities of life below stairs.
After performing so creditably against Milan in midweek, the dangers of complacency should have shone like a neon light down the Old King's Road. If Chelsea are to mount a sustained challenge for Manchester United's title, they will have to match United's consistency of passion. The ability to finesse games like these will be essential to their prosperity in the Premier League. Somewhere between the Versace glamour of Milan on Wednesday and the M & S qualities of Watford, Chelsea lost their spirit. Watford, expertly marshalled by Graham Taylor and thoroughly disciplined, took one look at a side without Gianfranco Zola and steamrollered their way to a well- deserved victory.
"I cannot be too complimentary about my players, it was a great day for Watford," Taylor said. "The effort can be taken for granted, but you've got to get a bit cute at this level." Cuteness has never been one of Watford's more notable assets, but their tactical stifling of Chelsea's roving full- backs laid the base for a masterly display of counter-attacking, capped by a well-worked goal by Allan Smart early in the second half, which left Vialli disappointed and bewildered.
"I've got to think about it a bit, why we performed so well against Milan and so badly against Watford," he said. "This was our poorest performance of the season." It will be worrying for Chelsea fans that Vialli was already pointing to the congested fixture list as a potential cause of such an obvious slip. Only five players survived from Wednesday's line-up, but with four internationals to take their place and an introduction for Gabriele Ambrosetti from Vicenza, there was still a fair sprinkling of class. Compare and contrast with Watford, who unveiled Nordin Wooter from Real Zaragoza, at pounds 950,000, the most expensive signing in the club's history. There were no valid excuses for Chelsea. "I know from my own experience how difficult it can be to play against Milan on Wednesday and to find the motivation to play against Watford on Saturday," Vialli added. "But, to be fair to them, they made us play in a different way."
Indeed. They know a bit about route one down these parts, from the glory days of old. But to see Chelsea, a team of a thousand talents, reduced to lumping high balls and long crosses into the Watford penalty box for Tore Andre Flo and Chris Sutton, partners for the first time, proved the success of Taylor's tactics and the poverty of Chelsea's creative instincts in the absence of Zola.
Zola did appear on the hour in place of Flo, but by then Watford's tail was up and Chelsea were a goal down. Robert Page and Mark Williams, so solid at the heart of Watford's defence, were barely troubled by such primitive methods and, with Wooter and Peter Kennedy restricting the forays of Albert Ferrer and Graeme Le Saux down the flanks, Chelsea were forced to rough it in midfield where not even Didier Deschamps could establish any semblance of superiority. The Frenchman's elan deserted him for once, as he allowed a ball to roll under his feet on the slippery surface and kicked out at an advertising hoarding in frustration.
The warning lights were flashing for the aristocrats by the end of a sterile first half which quite suited the purposes of the home team. Watford ventured little; Chelsea fashioned rather less. A Bjarne Goldbaek volley after 40 minutes proved their only shot on target in the half, while Watford harried hard and threatened only when Smart gained a foot or two of space before heading wide.
When Steve Palmer bullocked forward and shot venomously just wide minutes after half-time, the Vicarage Road crowd began to sense another illustrious scalp to add to the one spirited out of Anfield earlier in the season. Moments later, a neat move involving Wooter, leaving his station on the right for an instant, and Paul Robinson left an opening for Smart to tuck the ball firmly past Ed de Goey for the first goal Chelsea had conceded in five games.
Chelsea tried to raise some form of reply, bringing on Zola and Dan Petrescu, and it was the little Italian who almost put Chelsea level with a header. The rest, though, was dire. Sutton was woefully short of confidence, Jody Morris and Deschamps were too busy fighting for space in the midfield to harbour any artistic thoughts and, without Gustavo Poyet's forward breaks, Chelsea lacked variety in their attack. With a visit to Hertha Berlin on Tuesday as the season grinds relentlessly on, Vialli will need to find a quick solution. "We've got to show more passion - no, I mean, patience," Vialli said afterwards, correcting himself just in time to stifle screaming tabloid headlines.
Celebrating his 55th birthday in midweek had turned Graham Taylor all philosophical in his programme notes. About the right time to retire, he mused. Not just yet. With United, Leeds and Arsenal next in line, there is plenty of good sport to come.
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