Enter the peacock with a stern eye and an iron fist

John Carlin finds the Spanish view of the new man is far from flattering
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The Independent Football

Claudio Ranieri will be hoping to go down better in England than he did in Spain during his time at Valencia and Atletico Madrid.

Claudio Ranieri will be hoping to go down better in England than he did in Spain during his time at Valencia and Atletico Madrid.

The Spanish have a thing about Italian football. They find it stifling, life-denying, too ready to sacrifice the pleasure principle on the cold altar of efficiency. The Spanish also have a thing about show-offs. On the pitch they enjoy extravagance; off it they prefer their coaches, and the players, to be self-effacing.

For the fans and the press in Spain, Ranieri represented the worst of both worlds. His football philosophy, as they saw it, was quintessential catenaccio; personally, they thought, he was a preening peacock. Which was probably unfair, reflecting as it did on a nationalprejudice.

On the other hand, it may not be too far-fetched to suggest that similarly irrational factors played a part in Chelsea's decision to hire Ranieri. Ken Bates, a far-from-retiring individual, conveys the impression sometimes of having wished he had been born Italian. And most certainly the dolce vita snob in him, as in his managing director, Colin Hutchinson, and the increasingly gentrified Chelsea faithful, will derive satisfaction from the demeanour and deportment of the London azzurris' new coach.

Ranieri dresses impeccably; he holds his patrician head high. On the training pitch he likes to play not so much the sergeant major as the colonel - tough, maybe aggressive, but always cool. At press conferences a wry, knowing smile rarely leaves his lips. And yet, for all his self-possession, he must have been flattered, surprised, and mightily relieved to have received the call .

In the absence of any strict science determining who will be a successful coach, Ranieri must have wondered after he departed Atletico Madrid last season whether his days in big-time football were over. He was forced to resign from Atletico on 3 March after proving unable to prevent the club, traditionally one of Spain's top four, from spiralling towards relegation. The Spanish commentators blamed him, and his Italian predecessor, Arrigo Sacchi, for having killed the flair of an Atletico side who as recently as 1997 had been playing some of the most exciting football in Europe.

At Valencia, however, Ranieri had been more successful. In the 1998-99 season he led them to victory in the Spanish cup and won them qualification for the Champions' League, where last season under their new coach, the Argentine Hector Cúper, they exceeded all expectations and made it to the final.

Would Valencia have done so well had Ranieri stayed? Maybe. Would they have played, at their best, the most attractive football seen in the Champions' League last season? No. Cúper ("He taught Valencia players to love the ball again," wrote one commentator) played a fast, open 4-4-2 game based consciously on Manchester United. At Valencia, as at Atletico, Ranieri played a 5-3-2 game in which the burden on the five and the three was to defend, to snatch possession and to launch immediate counter-attacks via the solitary attacking twosome, preferably with long balls. Ranieri is no friend of the passing football, the intricate weaves, so beloved in Spain. Nor does he prize attacking midfielders with dash and individual skill, like two of his more famous victims at Valencia and Atletico: Ariel Ortega and Juninho.

What he does prize is a fast, hungry striker who will feed off long balls and turn defence rapidly into attack. Claudio Lopez at Valencia and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink at Atletico scored almost all their teams' goals under Ranieri.

Expect Ranieri to deploy Hasselbaink as his goal-scoring front man with Zola as his supplier, as the forward link man between defence and attack. Also expect Ranieri (who likes to employ military metaphors) to drill his troops with characteristically Italian discipline, to run them hard; to insist upon relentless pressure and positional rigour; to prepare for each game with attention to the strengths and shortcomings of the opposition.

Under Vialli, Chelsea played, when they played well, the prettiest football in England. Under Ranieri they will be less pretty. Will they be more effective? It is impossible to say, not least because of the irony Vialli will be reflecting upon: Hutchinson says Ranieri has been hired to take Chelsea "to another level" but Ranieri, in 14 years as a coach, has not gone beyond the level Vialli reached in three. He won cups, but never came close to winning a league.