Chelsea rally to glorious victory

 

LIVERPOOL simply could not live with the Chelsea floor show at Stamford Bridge yesterday. Just when they seemed to have plotted a distinguished course to the last 16 of the FA Cup the script was torn from their grasp and rewritten by a Welsh hand with Italian endorsements. Ruud Gullit's team's reward is a visit to Leicester City in the fifth round.

After scoring twice in 10 minutes of the first half, last season's Wembley finalists were undone by three Chelsea goals in the space of 12 minutes early in the second with a fourth to follow. It all made for marvellous footballing theatre and if the competition sees a better match this season one can only hope the best is saved until last the final itself.

Glenn Hoddle, the England coach, will surely have watched yesterday's proceedings with mixed feelings. Like everyone else he can hardly have failed to enjoy the spectacle, but the part played by Chelsea's Azzurri in wresting the tie from Liverpool offered a disturbing augury for England's World Cup qualifier against Italy a fortnight on Wednesday.

For while three Englishmen, John Barnes, Steve McManaman and Jamie Redknapp, dominated the match before half time, three Italians, Roberto Di Matteo Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola, became important influences in the second. During the first 45 minutes, Barnes revelled in the room Chelsea were prepared to allow him but in the second half he was allowed far less time and space by Di Matteo, and this, in the main, was where Liverpool lost their impressive earlier rhythm.

Yet the match was surely turned around during the interval when Gullit decided to replace Scott Minto with Mark Hughes, whose absence at the start had been something of a mystery. On New Year's Day, in the Premier League, Hughes's performance had contributed much to Liverpool's 1-0 defeat. True, he had since been troubled by an ankle injury but Gullit's thinking was tactical, not medical.

Before Hughes joined the attack Chelsea found themselves unable to hold the ball up near goal. Vialli and Zola were peripheral figures, Mark Wright, Dominic Matteo and Bjorn Kvarme, Liverpool's new Norwegian centreback, looked impregnable.

Hughes, with his strength, tenacity and sheer bloody mindedness, changed all that. As Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, admitted afterwards: "Mark Hughes forced us to go deep. Before he came on we were defending on the halfway line, then we found ourselves defending on the 18 yard line. We dropped off 30 yards and you can't give good players that much space."

Liverpool left Stamford Bridge regretting their relative leniency when they appeared to have laid waste Chelsea's latest Cup ambitions; they could have been four up by half time. Bereft of Michael Duberry, out for the season with an Achilles tendon injury, Chelsea's defence struggled to control - its skirts in the face of Liverpool's breezy passing game.

After 10 minutes McManaman reached the byline on the left and Robbie Fowler's head just missed his centre. But Chelsea failed to intercept a subsequent cross from Jason McAteer, even after McManaman had miscued, the ball was still not cleared, and finally Fowler turned in a low centre from Stig Inge Bjornebye.

Another 10 minutes and Zola, under pressure from Wright, played a careless pass to Eddie Newton who could not prevent Stan Collymore gaining possession and striding through to increase Liverpool's lead. "We had given two sloppy goals away," said Gullit, "so I had to do something drastic for the second half and it worked."

That was something of an understatement. The effect of Hughes, now supporting Vialli with Zola playing deeper, was immediate. After 51 minutes he brought down a ball from Steve Clarke and turned under pressure to drive a low shot past David James. Two minutes before the hour, Hughes's was the crucial touch that set up Zola for a glorious left footed equaliser.

Three minutes past the hour Zola instigated a movement which saw Dan Petrescu's pass catch Liverpool square, Vialli surging through to slide the ball past the advancing James. Then with 15 minutes remaining Vialli's shaven head soared above the defence to glance in Chelsea's fourth goal from Zola's precise free kick.

Thus did Chelsea repeat their 4-2 victory over Liverpool in the third round of the Cup 19 years earlier. Yesterday's result, however, was more reminiscent of Liverpool's 4-3 defeat by Crystal Palace in the 1990 semi-finals.

Again, after achieving a winning position, they had lulled themselves into a false sense of security and again the opposition, finding the stage door ajar, had stolen the show. Meanwhile, Mark Hughes remains stuck in Anfield's craw; yesterday they would have preferred Howard Hughes.

. The former Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar kept a clean sheet as Zimbabwe took a point off the tournament favourites Ghana in an African Nations Cup qualifier in Harare yesterday. Grobbelaar was given leave to play despite his current trial on match fixing charges in Winchester.

. Holders Manchester United will have another home tie against London opposition in the fifth round of the FA Cup if they survive a replay at Wimbledon tomorrow week.

Yesterday's draw pitted them against QPR. United have already knocked out Tottenham but were caught out by Robbie Earle's injury time equaliser for Wimbledon at Old Trafford on Saturday.

Chelsea were rewarded with a fifth round trip to Martin O'Neill's Leicester. Arsenal were lucky in the draw again, with another Highbury tie against first division Portsmouth if they can overcome Leeds in a delayed fourth round clash in north London tomorrow week.

Manchester City and new boss Frank Clark will earn a home tie with Middlesbrough provided they can see off second division Watford in another delayed fourth round tie at Maine Road.