Chelsea hand out spanking


Ruud Gullit is so taken by life at Chelsea that he has undertaken to sign a new contract. While he is at it, he might like to catch the mood of 1997 and subscribe, Tony Blair-like, to a contract with the public. "My one great promise: I vow we will press Manchester United for the title until the spring."

The Premiership top three remain, on the face of it, closely grouped, but that cannot remove the apprehension that we will wake up one day early in the new year to find Manchester United disappearing over the horizon. Gullit was asked on Saturday, as he invariably is, whether Chelsea could maintain the pressure.

It was important to stay involved, he said, and it was important that his own team possessed many goal-scorers. "Some teams in the championship are moaning because one player is not there. That can make you very vulnerable." Yeah, point taken, Ruud, but then we all wrote off Newcastle weeks ago.

Ron Atkinson had different problems. He was moaning that Sheffield Wednesday had 11 players who were not there. The only problem was that he had picked them all. "We haven't played," he said. "We've had a good spanking from a top side. It was an absolute joke."

Unwelcome comparisons to Wednesday's early-season surrenders under David Pleat reduced Atkinson afterwards to adamantly silent sips of cold tea. It is not quite his tipple, but it was no time to offer him a glass of champagne.

Chelsea had been walloped into stalemate by a nine-man Leeds United side a week earlier, and for the first 20 minutes or so there was a residual uncertainty about them which Gullit appropriately compared to a "a game of boxing". Not everybody in Sheffield gets off the floor as impressively as Prince Naseem. Wednesday danced, pointed to their collective chin, and fell over for good.

Kevin Pressman, once the most promising goalkeeper in the country, has gained enough extra bulk to have become a weight on the mind, and at its worst the defensive pairing of Jon Newsome and Des Walker allies the ponderous with the accident-prone. It is little wonder that Atkinson's priority is a centre-half.

For Chelsea's Italian strikers Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola, making a rare outing together, it made for an afternoon of blissful extravagance. The more chances they frittered away - and they wasted a surprising number, Pressman not making a save in the match - the less it seemed to matter.

Zola hauled an inviting chance wide in the third minute; Vialli blazed over when Zola was unmarked alongside him. Such descriptions are necessary for Wednesday's defenders, who were mostly too far away to see. But Chelsea had the lead by half-time as Dan Petrescu swivelled smoothly to score from 20 yards.

The second half was a procession. Chelsea's midfield passed, strolled and smiled. Vialli pin-balled Zola's corner over the line after his own header had bashed against the bar - Pressman should have been first to the cross - and Leboeuf hammered in a penalty after Vialli, with two yards start on Nolan, had been easily caught but possessed enough nous to win a clear penalty.

Mark Pembridge's dipping volley from 25 yards briefly roused Wednesday, but any defensive alertness was again lacking when Tore Andre Flo, given a spot of exercise as a substitute, curled one in as comfortably as you like from 20 yards. If Chelsea, beaten four times away this season, have not quite answered all the questions about their endurance, their flexibility is unquestioned.