A Roman still fiddles to make Chelsea burn

Tinkering is tailor-made as Ranieri faces a critical week
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Claudio Ranieri's English is improving sufficiently to tell a joke. "There is a poor man, does not have a job, his wife is in hospital, the two sons don't work and have to [pay to] go to the dentist. He goes in a church. 'My God, please, let me win the Lottery.' The day after, no win. Again to church, every day, every day, 'Let me win'. Until after one month, a voice: 'Hey, guy, to win Lottery, buy a ticket!' "

Good fortune, the Chelsea manager believes, does not simply arrive with a word in the right ear, but has to be worked for. Should Lady Luck cock a deaf 'un to his team in three critical London derbies over the next seven days – at home to West Ham this after-noon and on Saturday in the FA Cup, and at Tottenham in the Worthington Cup semi-final on Wednesday – he is less likely than many of his rivals to rail against misfortune: "In Italy we say 'the luck of the big teams', but I don't believe a lot in luck or no luck. If luck is there, I want to reach out and take it."

Sometimes, it seems from the outside, the likeable Roman is trying too hard. A new word he has recently learnt from his English lessons, and clearly likes the sound of, rolling it round and round his smiling mouth, is "tinker". To many, it is a criticism, of an apparent inability to leave well alone even during the course of a game.

There may, somewhere, be a manager who makes more substitutions (Arsène Wenger?), but none who does so as early in a match; in two successive games last autumn, three Chelsea substitutes were introduced at half-time, and in four of this year's five matches, at least one player has been replaced at the interval. "Tinker, tinker... If the match is good, nobody says anything," he insists, with some justification. "If the match is bad – aah, 'Tinker, tinker'. Always I have changed [tactics and players], I think I was the first, in Cagliari 13 years ago."

It's a results business, in any language. Once Ranieri had settled in as Gianluca Vialli's replacement, Chelsea's were as good as almost anyone else's from Christmas onwards last season and then, with the exception of the Hapoel Tel Aviv débâcle in the Uefa Cup (hardly the manager's fault) for the first third of this campaign.

Today's opponents West Ham were the only side to beat them in the first 14 Premiership games, but boos against Blackburn and Charlton and booze on more than one occasion raised the familiar old spectres of inconsistency on the pitch and indiscipline off it.

Previously reluctant to comment on the latter issue, Ranieri opened up last week. "It's strange for me. In Italy and Spain the players are not used to going to the pub. The manager tells them to be careful with the girls; here the beer is more dangerous than the girls! But it's important that young players must understand their life can change. If they do this job with passion, they can change their life and their family's, because there is a lot of money. They must understand, drink at the right moment."

Lager culture is not the only difference he found in English football, after 13 years with Cagliari, Fiorentina, Valencia and Atletico Madrid, but is one of the few negative ones. For the most part, his third footballing country compares favourably with the previous two: "Look, in Italy, the most important thing is, don't concede a goal, and one-nil is enough, this is the philosophy of the country. In Spain, the first idea is 'show' for the fans, there is more space for the players and they can play more freely. In Italy, the football is work; in Spain, is a show; in England is a passion and a sport. And I like England, because when I played, I had that philosophy."

It is a critical week for Chelsea and for a manager, who has never yet heard his name chanted at Stamford Bridge, despite putting a much younger team than Vialli's back in the top six for most of the past 12 months and leading them now to within 90 minutes of a Cardiff final. While refusing to make one competition more important than another, he admits: "I would be happy if, at the end of the season, Chelsea are in the first four and win one cup."

In a week, their prospects, and the manager's credibility, could be either greatly enhanced, or in tatters. Claudio Ranieri has been around long enough to know it's a results business, in any language.