Foreign legion set to shine in Wembley show
RUUD Gullit will be the first foreign manager to lead a team on to the pitch at Wembley for an FA Cup final when he walks down the tunnel with his Chelsea players tomorrow afternoon.
The most prestigious cup final in English football will be a cosmopolitan affair this year, graced by stars from Italy, Brazil, France and Denmark.
With Middlesbrough as opponents, half of the starting lineups could be foreigners.
Middlesbrough, led by Bryan Robson have Brazilian stars Juninho and Emerson and Italy's Fabrizio Ravanelli.
They have reached their first FA Cup final in their 121-year history after beating Second Division Chesterfield 3-0 in a semi-final replay.
All three goals were scored by foreign players: Denmark's Mikkel Beck, Ravanelli and Emerson.
The fleet-footed Juninho set up two of the goals and was by far the game's dominant player.
Chelsea, coached by former Dutch star Gullit and spearheaded by Italian striker Gianfranco Zola, are seeking their first major trophy since 1971.
The Middlesbrough-Chelsea clash reflects the way the once insular English game has become one of the most international in Europe, as lucrative television deals have allowed clubs to bid for foreign talent.
The largely industrial northeast English city of Middlesbrough - far from the glamour of London - managed in the last year to lure Juninho, Emerson, Beck, Ravanelli and another Italian, Gianluca Festa.
Middlesbrough were disappointing in a 1-0 loss in the League Cup to Leicester and then the roof fell when they were relegated from the Premier League.
Now, with their top names poised to move, Middlesbrough fans are looking for one last hurrah in a form of a cup victory.
Manager Robson has been outspoken in defending his foreign legion.
'People keep criticising them, but they've all made a big impact this season,' Robson said.
'If you look through the season, between them they've been Man of the Match nearly every game, so they haven't got to prove anything.' A victory at Wembley would give Middlesbrough their first league or cup title and land the club in Europe next season in the Cup Winners' Cup, albeit from a First Division standpoint.
Sources at the club yesterday played down the possibility of a High Court challenge to try and overturn the three-point deduction Middlesbrough were 'fined' for failing to fulfil a fixture.
The three points would have secured Middlesbrough's Premier status and possibly kept their foreign legion of stars.
Chelsea seem sure to start Zola, Italian midfielder Roberto Di Matteo, French defender Frank Leboeuf and Dan Petrescu of Romania.
Frode Grodas of Norway is likely to be given the nod as goalkeeper in preference to Russian Dmitri Kharine.
The No.1 jersey is an area where Middlesbrough have problems, with Australian Mark Schwarzer cup-tied through previous games with Bradford City; former Manchester United 'keeper Gary Walsh injured and local boy Ben Roberts is recovering from a heavy bout of 'flu and an elbow injury.
If Roberts fails a fitness test, Middlesbrough will be forced to use defender Neil Cox as the replacement goalkeeper.
There is also a huge doubt over Ravanelli's fitness after he received treatment in Italy which diagnosed damage to a sciatic nerve.
The Italian, along with Brazilian Emerson, did not train on Wednesday and Thursday and a decision will be taken on his Wembley role nearer kick-off.
Robson expects Emerson to be fit to marshall the centre of midfield.
Chelsea appear to have few selection problems with Gullit having to decide who to leave out.
If his preferred strike force of Zola and Mark Hughes gets the nod, that would leave former Juventus' captain Gianluca Vialli, who won the European Cup with the Italians last year, again on the bench.