Steed is the key

Sunday 14 April 2002

A curious romance is in the air, suggesting that Chelsea hubris is being set against Fulham humility at Villa Park this evening. It is misleading, because under Claudio Ranieri, Chelsea are working harder by the month, and because the spending power of the Mohamed al-Fayed purse has imported £30m of French reinforcements for Fulham.

There is nothing humble in London's West End. However, the Fulham fans who once feared closure of their club travel with a freshness of hope that would be lost on Chelsea.

Formed in 1879, and never a winner of anything as grand as the FA Cup, Fulham last contested a semi-final 27 years ago.Chelsea are journeying to their 10th semi-final in nine years, and winning the Cup again is secondary to the main target of qualifying through the Premiership for the Champions League.

One splendid day in Cardiff in May, and the bonuses that go with it, do not compare to Chelsea chairman Ken Bates's craving to be among the giants.

Cups are baubles, useful insurance for entry to Europe's income streams, but the real prize for Chelsea is to share in the Champions League riches next year, and win England's championship the year after.

Even so, the safe money is on Chelsea tonight. They have big-match temperament, they have talent, know-how and no reason to be nervous on the pitch. Fulham are first-timers in the Premiership, with a rhythm that is easy on the eye, but a habit of not taking their chances.

They have run Chelsea close in two league games, but have only one point to show for it. And perhaps Steed Malbranque epitomises where Fulham stand in their development. He is a bull of a man, sturdy without having imposing height, swift without covering the ground quite like Ryan Giggs, technically accomplished without knowing how good he can be. "Steed can score or make goals," observes a coach who knows every nuance of his game, "but he is just 22, and when you move to another country, you have a human challenge, then the challenge to express yourself as a player. He will do that. The ball to him is like his girlfriend, and he has the capacity to change the facet of a game." The speaker, obviously, is not English. Christian Damiano, the experienced mind alongside Fulham's manager Jean Tigana, is steeped in the French system of grooming better technique than we are yet achieving in England. He first saw Malbranque when the boy was 13 and was, although born in Belgium, already under the wing of Olympique Lyons.

The club, and for once not the famed academy at Clairefontaine, spent years encouraging the close control of the growing Malbranque, widening his vision to pass and shoot from greater distances. Lyons produced a playmaker who progressed to captain France at under-18 level. In common with all the French clubs, they could not hold on to such a talented player.

Tigana and Damiano soon arrived with £4.5m of Fayed's fortune, to take Malbranque to London. It was not the most expensive investment Fulham have made, but Damiano believes it will produce bountiful dividends. "It's too early for Malbranque for the national team," Damiano told the club website last week, "but he plays the No 10 position that (Zinedine) Zidane excels at. He has the potential to one day replace Zidane."

From such a thoughtful mentor to a still-blossoming talent, that is some public statement. We may not see the quick feet of a Zidane, the awareness bordering on genius tonight, because Malbranque is not ready for that either, and Chelsea, with considerable French forces themselves, including World Cup winners Marcel Desailly and Emmanuel Petit, would not allow it.

There lies the difference between the clubs. Chelsea have scaled back the ageing squad they had, but still there is a ripeness, a confidence that comes with medals on the table, whereas Fulham are reaching up, growing into Premiership status, learning along the way.How pleasing it has been to see Tigana stick to his passing principles, how galling it would be if the club went down, allowing those who think ability has to be laced with aggression to make a mark at this level to believe they are right.

Fulham showed at Newcastle last Monday that they can, and should, survive. Malbranque has shown the potential to compete and to surprise, and if the forwards, Louis Saha and Steve Marlet, can believe in themselves more and impose their speed and opportunism, there is, as always, the possibility of a surprise in a one-off match such as a semi-final.

But one victory in 10 league and cup games tells you that there is a struggle going on inside the heads of the Fulham players. And, without a man who has experienced the tensions and the unique atmosphere of an FA Cup semi-final - one made hellishly expensive for 38,000 Londoners who will have to travel the motorways at the FA's whim - there remains the factor of the unknown.

Chelsea could think their name is on the Cup, or at least on an appearance in the final, and be complacent. Fulham could be inspired, or cowed, by what is the chance of a lifetime for most of them. Chelsea's World Cup contingent could have their minds on other things, while most of Fulham's players are a month away from the season's end.

Where you fear for Fulham is in defence, though behind them stands a man long of reach and longer still in pedigree. Goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar has played semi-finals at every level, from World Cup to European Championship with Holland. He has won the European Cup with Ajax and Serie A with Juventus.

In the dressing room today he will be the picture of calm. "It is a semi-final," van der Sar says, "and you have not won anything if you win a semi- final. It is nothing to get stressed about."

Come the final, if they get there, he will have to think of some other words to be the stress buster.