The Times

Monday 15 April 2002

From The Times

CHELSEA did not require a spectacle to be sure of a victory. They have the chance, against Arsenal, of a third FA Cup triumph in six seasons, because Fulham could not punish a patchy and spasmodic display. On a night when Claudio Ranieri's team was not at its best, the scorer of the goal epitomised the persistence that saw them through. John Terry faces a court case that prevents him from captaining England in next month's under-21 European Championship. With a sound display here, he has, all the same, given his season a new focus.

Football, though, always has its contrasts and Graeme Le Saux, who damaged a calf muscle after five minutes, cannot be sure of recovering for the Final on May 4. Ranieri, the Chelsea head coach, said: "Graeme Le Saux said his second calf injury is worse than the first."

Terry's admiration of Tony Adams is well known, but the tribute to doughty and scarred English centre halves teetered on the brink of parody when he started the match with his head already swathed in bandages. The young Chelsea defender had a perfectly sensible reason for his appearance, having recently cut his forehead, and, in any case, he was soon to prove that he is more than an impressionist.

Before his goal, he had almost scored with a volley, and it required the exotic influence of Arsène Wenger at Arsenal before Adams allowed himself that sort of frippery. The opening for Terry came in the thirteenth minute, when Sean Davis could not clear an Emmanuel Petit corner and Marcel Desailly forced the ball on so that Terry could twist and shoot. Edwin van der Sar turned the attempt over the crossbar.

Although the FA Cup is meant, according to dewy-eyed lore, to be a tournament apart, clubs do not shed their identities quite so readily. If they did, Chelsea would not now be in the Final. To their regret, Fulham, too, were stuck in character. There is no disgrace in that, and this was not the kind of tie where the ball is an embarrassment to the less-favoured team.

Fulham continued to be the well-groomed group of players who have got themselves into trouble in the FA Barclaycard Premiership. They are like a craftsman who never completes the piece of jewellery he has been commissioned to make. There is always another detail to be added.

Against Chelsea, Fulham came close only once to completing their delicate work. After 35 minutes, a move wheeled in from the right and Sylvain Legwinski exchanged passes before aiming to slip a shot in at the near post and finding that Carlo Cudicini had blocked it for a corner. With his agility and speed of reaction, the goalkeeper is impressive, although the evidence was not profuse in this semi-final.

Despite the passion they showed after the interval, Fulham are not the kind of team to create havoc. Tigana was right to conclude that he needed some tearaway pace, but the introduction of Luis Boa Morte, at the expense of John Collins, came at a cost to the team's composure and Chelsea, on the break, ought to have stretched their lead.

Even while the contest was still at its most knotted, Ranieri's men were capable of the greater incisiveness.

In the 41st minute, Mario Stanic swivelled to outpace Andy Melville and earn a corner by firing against the legs of Van der Sar. Fulham are uneasy at set-pieces and the Dutchman rarely comes off his line to snatch the ball. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink landed the corner deep inside the six-yard box, where it struck Mario Melchiot and bounced back to Terry, at an angle beyond the near post. His shot struck Louis Saha on its way to the net.

Chelsea, grappling belatedly for a place in the upper echelon of the FA Barclaycard Premiership, still have a reputation for inconstancy, but they stayed true to their cause here. Even if Hasselbaink was blockaded by Fulham, and Eidur Gudjohnsen proved erratic, Ranieri's side were irritated rather than heartbroken by the absence of a second goal.

With Desailly to stand guard over it, the advantage was never liable to be pilfered from them. Early in the second half, Saha burst past Terry, but the France centre back was there to check him in the penalty area and Desailly was also in the path of a Steve Marlet attempt soon after.

Chelsea's unhappiness in front of the posts had little to do with Fulham's expertise and Petit pulled a shot wide in the 65th minute after being set up by Stanic and Gudjohnsen.

The latter discovered that even virtuosity would not work on this occasion, when he shaped a shot around Alain Goma, the Fulham centre half, and watched it ping against the far post in the 67th minute.

The Iceland forward was guilty of blunders in the closing stages as he hoisted a Stanic cut-back over the crossbar and miskicked another cross by the Croat. It is a sign of Chelsea's strength, though, that they can survive their mistakes.

"We didn't play well at all but we won and that's the sign of a good team," Ken Bates, the Chelsea chairman said.