A final tinker, a guard of honour and a flood of tears

As predicted, it all ended in tears for Claudio Ranieri yesterday, as the dewy-eyed Italian departed the Bridge for what looks like the last time under a moving guard of honour from his players.

A pensive Ranieri later admitted that he had shed several tears as he walked down the tunnel after the end-of-season lap of honour. "When my players do this and the fans sing my name," he said, "I feel very emotional. I am a professional man, but I am a Latin man, too."

One wondered for a long time whether the Italian would slip away through the back door unnoticed, as the Stamford Bridge faithful, who are clearly resigned to losing their manager, failed to acknowledge him for the first 54 minutes. And then, finally, at 4.09pm, the singing started.

"Ranieri's Blue Army" and "There's only one Ranieri" came the chants from the terraces. Up stepped the Italian to acknowledge the generous applause from every corner of the ground, including the away section. Too little too late, but the gesture was indicative of the respect the future ex-Chelsea manager enjoys up and down the country.

Ranieri would not say whether this was his last game at the helm, but that is only because he genuinely does not know himself. "I asked to have my future sorted out before the end of the season," he explained, "but nothing has happened. This is why I said goodbye to my players and the supporters. It's just in case, because I am not sure if I will have another chance."

It is the worst kept secret in football that Jose Mourinho, the Porto manager, is being lined up to replace him as soon as the Champions' League final is over. Chelsea have improved under Ranieri's stewardship, but too slowly for Roman Abramovich's liking. Even allowing for the numerous changes that took place this season, the new owner was expecting his club to lift some silverware. But the Asia Cup in the summer of 2003 remains the only trophy Ranieri has won in three-and-a-half years as manager.

The Italian insists that he has now laid the foundations for a bright future, but, even if he is right, it is clear that he will not reap the rewards of his labours. "I think my plan is good," he said, "and I am sad because I would like to be given one more year. But now the ball is in Roman's court."

One cannot help feel anything but sympathy for the genial Italian, who has never lost his sense of humour throughout a difficult and rumour-ridden season. One moment yesterday perfectly captured his charm. As a Tannoy announcement bellowed out around the press room, Ranieri immediately joked: "Oh, perhaps it is my mother asking me why I did not play Damien Duff."

Mama Ranieri might also have asked her Tinkerman boy why yesterday's starting XI saw the usual changes in tactics and personnel, with Glen Johnson, a right-back, playing on the right of midfield, and Joe Cole operating out of position up front behind Eidur Gudjohnsen.

As ever, the team looked solid in defence and played relatively well when going forward, but there was still a distinct lack of cohesion. True, this was the last game of a tiring season, but one would expect the Chelsea machine to be well enough oiled to dispose of Leeds more convincingly.

And perhaps that is Ranieri's greatest fault. For all his good work with young English players, not to mention his ability to keep together a multi-cultural dressing room, he has never quite managed to impose a system of play during his tenure. "I tried to do my best," he said. "Next season, Chelsea must improve with or without me." In other words, Abramovich's new manager will have to guide the club to the Premiership title and the Champions' League final. Good luck, Jose or whoever.

As for Ranieri, he will no doubt bounce back before long, perhaps as close as across the capital at Tottenham. He deserves another chance in English football. In the meantime, Ranieri will have a generous pay-off of £6m with which to indulge his passion for antiques. Ciao Claudio, and happy shopping.

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