A hard job for Ranieri's convincing case

Double jeopardy for Chelsea manager but Henry's absence gives his career prospects a lift
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The Independent Football

Another day, another blowpipe dart directed between the shoulder blades of Claudio Ranieri. Just as well the Italian possesses a rhinoceros hide, and a humour that protects him like an antidote to the poison.

On Friday, it was idle talk from Arsenal's Ashley Cole, and a tabloid's narrow interpretation of his sentiments, which could have unsettled a less resolute man. "If we beat them we could end up getting Ranieri the sack," was Cole's relatively innocuous quote, which produced the headline We'll Sink Tink, a reference to Chelsea's self-styled "Tinkerman".

Ranieri charitably regards such speculation as "the spice of our job". Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that what the Chelsea coach, with the spectre of Sven Goran Eriksson at his shoulder, does not need now is a double-header within a week against the League leaders, located only 16 Tube stops away. The first comes at lunchtime today in the knock-out competition which Ranieri and his counterpart Arsène Wenger have regarded with a respect not observed throughout the Premiership.

Under Ranieri, Chelsea have been defeated by Arsenal in the FA Cup every season - including the 2002 final - since he succeeded Gianluca Vialli in September 2000. The portents are equally ominous from a historical perspective. It was just after the end of the war that Chelsea last accounted for Arsenal in the Cup, and they have never won a tie at Highbury. Typically, Ranieri has a ready response to such statistics. "In Italy we say, 'There isn't two without three'. We lost three [FA Cup games against Arsenal]. Now it is time for a win. It is a big rock in front of us, but we are ready."

The persistent Eriksson takeover claim is a strange one. Most of the evidence is circumstantial, and as far as this observer is aware, there is no substance to the rumours; though, as we are all aware, six months can be an eternity in football politics. Anyway, are the Swede's credentials any superior to Ranieri's? Still, you assume the latter must yearn for the freedom that Wenger (and, indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson back in 1986) enjoyed to create a team, without the constant pressure and talk that the Stamford Bridge regime are poised to change the manager.

Ranieri maintains: "At the beginning, there was a chairman and chief executive who chose him [Wenger]. I want the new owner [Roman Abramovich] and new chief executive [Peter Kenyon] to believe in me also. That is my job. I try to do everything to convince them. If Abramovich and Peter Kenyon had chosen me at the beginning, it would have been a little easier, but I have the possibility to show what I can do and that is important for me. A lot of managers want to come here. That's understandable. But at the moment I am here. I have the stability and I am strong."

In his brown corduroy designer jacket, he looked anything but a squatter. Yet, effectively Ranieri was claiming squatters' rights. The message for would-be interlopers is that you'll have to bundle him out of the place, bound hand and foot.

Certainly the players have vindicated his faith, having emerged from a Christmas period when their grasp on the championship became increasingly tenuous with renewed vigour. It does not surprise the Italian. "After the Liverpool match, which we lost 1-0, I said that I'm sure my players would come back. Slowly we have recovered, and are in a good condition. We can improve again."

But sufficient to eclipse the Gunners, who have just about every rival locked into their firing line at present? And not once, at Highbury today, but at Stamford Bridge again on Saturday? Much will depend on the proficiency of the defending of John Terry and company - even in the absence through injury of arch predator Thierry Henry.

Terry, who will almost certainly feature alongside Sol Campbell for England against Portugal on Wednesday, was a colossus against Portsmouth on Wednesday night. Ranieri almost purrs with enthusiasm for his captain. "I like Henry's elegance on the pitch, but of course I believe in my player. I brought him in for Frank Leboeuf, who was a world champion, and I believe in him. He is progressing every year. I said two years ago that in my opinion John could be like Tony Adams; for Chelsea, but also for England. He's got very close this season. He's strong, with a good personality. He's a fantastic player and still very young."

Henry was ruled out last night because of a bruised foot, but Ranieri is conscious that Arsenal possess other treasures, including the recent acquisition from Seville, Jose Antonio Reyes, who has already exhibited his vision and trickery. "Arsène always looks forward and Reyes is a fantastic player," says the Chelsea manager. "I'm sure he has bought a player with a long future in front of him."

Ranieri faces an Arsenal team who remain undefeated in the League this season. Their manager attributes a principal reason for that to the contribution of his captain, Patrick Vieira. "If you look at the reasons for our consistency since the start of the season, it is of course down to the attitude of my team, but also down to the work Patrick has done with the players," says Wenger. "He brings a mental understanding to the side, which we saw before when Tony Adams was playing. Maybe today it is forgotten that at one time he felt victimised and was on the edge. I was worried he would go."

Vieira has stayed, and provided the cement to bond the brickwork of the Arsenal team together. There is still a feeling that Chelsea remain a construction of individual pieces, who are still prone to falling apart under sustained assault. Yet you cannot argue with what Ranieri has achieved. The only question is, will he become the first coach to secure significant Champions' League, Premiership and FA Cup success, only to be dethroned at the culmination of it all? The next six days will provide us with some fascinating clues.