Chelsea ready to shed the great unwanted

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Chelsea's players were talking, yesterday, of tomorrow's Premiership match at Old Trafford. "It is a major game; we have to show we can bounce back," said Joe Cole. "It is important to come second," added Jesper Gronkjaer. "We need to play well to give us a lift," said John Terry. "Coming second is a stepping stone."

Chelsea's players were talking, yesterday, of tomorrow's Premiership match at Old Trafford. "It is a major game; we have to show we can bounce back," said Joe Cole. "It is important to come second," added Jesper Gronkjaer. "We need to play well to give us a lift," said John Terry. "Coming second is a stepping stone."

Their employers were thinking further ahead, to next season. Coming second is not good enough for Roman Abramovich. The Russian billionaire went into the Chelsea dressing room after their failure to reach the Champions' League final on Wednesday night and promised: "Next time it will be different."

How many of the players who heard this will be around to enjoy it is open to question. Steps are already being taken to ensure Abramovich's pledge is kept and most of them revolve around recruitment.

Leading lights of the world game - Ronaldo, David Beckham, David Trezuguet and Walter Samuel - have already been sounded out. Old links with Emerson, Roberto Ayala and Michel Salgado are being renewed. And, lest anyone forget, Arjen Robben and Petr Cech have already agreed to join. The only drawback is no one is asking the opinion of the man who will coach them - largely because Chelsea do not yet know who he will be.

It will not be Claudio Ranieri. His reign is almost over. There are just two Premiership matches and a severance agreement to complete. It will probably be Jose Mourinho, of Porto, but negotiations have been complicated by Porto's progress to the Champions' League final against Monaco, Chelsea's conquerors, on 26 May.

This has not stopped Abramovich's aides, primarily chief executive Peter Kenyon with input from Pini Zahavi, the "super-agent", from building a new team. In this the club are going against both previous English practice and common-sense. Buying a team, then hiring a coach, may occur on the Continent, notably at Real Madrid, but not here. Even Ranieri, though acquainted with the exercise and given a say in recruiting, came to the conclusion that the wholesale introduction of new players, however good the individuals, was unmanageable. As this season has progressed the spine of his team has increasingly been composed of players pre-dating Abramovich. Of 11 new signings only Wayne Bridge has been an unquestioned success. Damien Duff and Glenn Johnson have also done well but their impact has been affected by injury and inexperience. The jury remains out on Joe Cole and Scott Parker, though both must improve. The rest have not matched expectations.

Will Ronaldo, Beckham, etc be any better? And bear in mind the new manager will have favourites of his own. When Mourinho joined Porto from Leira he went back to his old club to sign Derlei and Nuno Valente. Both have flourished in Europe and, together with Maniche Ribeiro and Carlos Alberto, could follow him to Chelsea. Come pre-season training the new coach will be passing out name tags with the cones and bibs.

This cherry-picking, chocolate-box theory of team-creation may work but history is against it. Even Real Madrid have usually only added a player or two a season. Whoever the new coach is, he needs to be given time, two to three seasons, to develop a pattern of play and team spirit. Faith must also be kept in the playing staff with just a few additions each summer, not a complete XI.

This year's Champions' League finalists underline the value of building a team. All but one of the players who started Porto's semi-final in La Coruña on Tuesday played in that club's successful Uefa Cup-winning campaign last year. Eleven of the 14 players used by Monaco at Stamford Bridge were at the club last season. Arsenal have not become the fluid unit they now are overnight, nor was Manchester United's dominance over the last decade thrown together in a single summer. Both teams are a blend of youth and experience, each based on players steeped in the club and regularly invigorated by carefully selected newcomers.

Against this backdrop did Ranieri - as Kenyon would have us believe - "fail" by not winning a trophy? This correspondent did not anticipate the team would go so close in either the Premiership or the Champions' League. If not for injuries to Duff, Juan Sebastian Veron and Carlo Cudicini, Chelsea may have gone even closer.

The players themselves had mixed feelings; their contradictory emotions summed up by Terry. Initially he said: "We said at the start of the year that it would take time to improve. For many years, it's been Manchester United and Arsenal in the top two, so it would be good to put an end to that."

Then he added: "It's not good enough. Even before Roman Abramovich took over everyone wanted to win things and I'm no different. I want to win trophies - firstly the league title and secondly the Champions' League."

Gronkjaer added: "It's not black-or-white. We've achieved quite a lot this year. We've moved a few steps forward as a club even though so many new players came in. But at the end of the day you look for silverware and we haven't got any."

Joe Cole concluded: "These are the moments where you learn the most in football. It's great winning but, when you lose, you really find out about yourselves."

Whether he and his current team-mates are given time to absorb the lessons is another matter.

The Abramovich Recruits Chelsea's Hits And Misses

Chelsea have signed 14 players since Roman Abramovich bought the club last summer. Peter Cech (goalkeeper, £7m from Rennes) and Arjen Robben (winger, £6m from PSV Eindhoven) will not join until the end of the season while Alexei Smertin (midfielder, £3.5m from Bordeaux) has spent the season on loan to Portsmouth. Here is the verdict on the remaining 11.

Damien Duff (winger) £17m from Blackburn Rovers

Chelsea's record signing and Mama Ranieri's favourite. The club's most dangerous striker despite being played out of position. Injuries have undermined Chelsea's season. HIT

Hernan Crespo (striker) £16.8m from Internazionale

Took an age to acquire fitness and never lived up to billing. Twelve goals in 31 appearances (21 starts) is insufficient. MISS

Claude Makelele (midfield) £16.7m from Real Madrid

Looked to be the key signing but fitful application meant Real Madrid missed him more than Chelsea benefited. Play-acting in Monaco left a sour taste. MISS

Adrian Mutu (striker) £15.8m from Parma

Sensational debut, showing two-footed ability with goal, but thereafter disappointing. Ten goals in 36 appearances (30 starts) a poor return. Not scored since February. MISS

Juan Sebastian Veron (midfield) £15m from Man United

Ranieri billed him as the best midfielder in the world but proved a let-down. Was finding forming when struck down by back injury. Returned to wreck second half in Monaco. MISS

Scott Parker (midfield) £10m from Charlton Athletic

Played out of position and never matched pre-Christmas form he showed at Charlton. Energetic, but yet to reveal sufficient class. MISS

Geremi (midfield) £6.9m from Real Madrid

Showed flashes of quality he brought to Middlesbrough but did so infrequently. MISS

Wayne Bridge (left-back) £7m from Southampton

Grew in confidence as the season progressed. Only Ashley Cole keeps him out of England XI. HIT

Joe Cole (midfield) £6.6m from West Ham

Time remains on Cole's side but a return of three full matches despite 23 starts highlights inability to command a regular place. Goalscoring must improve (three this season). MISS

Glenn Johnson (right-back) £6m from West Ham

Prone to rash challenges but athletic confidence suggests he will become considerable asset. Four goals underlined composure. HIT

Neil Sullivan (goalkeeper) free from Tottenham Hotspur

Failed to take chance when Cudicini was injured and was displaced by Marco Ambrosio. MISS

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