Admirable Ranieri faces race against time

Chelsea and the Claudio outlook
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The Independent Football

It was the briefest of encounters, a swift but profoundly delivered embrace as their teams departed the field on Wednesday night, by two men whose futures are manacled by uncertainty. For Gérard Houllier, it reflected a temporary release from persecution after a rare Liverpool triumph at Stamford Bridge; for Claudio Ranieri, whose accompanying smile was scarcely that of a vanquished manager in the midst of an indifferent run of form, it represented a defiance and refusal to wear a mournful mask of impending doom.

Apparently the pair talked before and after the Premiership game. Oh, to have eavesdropped on those little chats. In the circumstances, that hug was a case of two kindred spirits bonding together, it was suggested to Ranieri at Chelsea's training ground on Friday. "Yes" - the eyes glinted with mischief - "because everybody wants to kill us," the Italian replied, producing that infectious, slightly maniacal laugh of his, before explaining that his benign expression was a result of the fact that "going back a long time, Chelsea didn't win at Anfield; Liverpool didn't at Stamford Bridge. This year, we have swapped round".

You hardly require a sixth sense to discern those who are destined for a contract termination. Glenn Hoddle, for example, bore the demeanour of a man who was inspecting the keen edge of the guillotine long before it was released at White Hart Lane. Not so Ranieri, who betrays none of the tell-tale signs exhibited by a character on football's death row.

Either Ranieri has a cavalier disregard for his future or he remains assured of his position, despite the close proximity of England coach Sven Goran Eriksson to his employer, Roman Abramovich. One suspects the latter. Presumably, the Italian manages to philosophise away his team's December descent as effectively in the company of Abramovich as he does in the presence of the media, claiming effectively that he is learning more from defeats than victories.

Ranieri concedes it has been a "bad month". On the final day of November, after Chelsea had defeated Manchester United, his team were Premiership leaders, four points ahead of the champions, and were title favourites. In the ensuing five weeks they have been defeated by Bolton, Liverpool and Charlton, and drawn at Leeds, a sequence punctuated by only two victories, against Fulham and Portsmouth. United have won every game in the corresponding period. Arsenal's results suffer in comparison to United, but they remain unbeaten.

Intriguingly, the Chelsea communications department made it their business on Friday to inform us of Chelsea's record now compared with Manchester United and Arsenal over recent seasons. They reminded us that Chelsea's 42 points are superior to anything they have produced in the last seven seasons. What's more, though that current record is inferior to United and Arsenal's, both those clubs are enjoying their best recent seasons at this stage (apart from Sir Alex Ferguson's men in 2001, when their record was marginally better).

That should not be ignored when Chelsea's current malaise is considered. Ranieri may well be attempting to construct a team with a multitude of expensive acquisitions, but it is in the context of Ferguson and Arsène Wenger building on past successes with ever- improving teams. The Premiership title has never been more competitive, more elusive. "Manchester United and Arsenal have won a lot of trophies. This is the new Chelsea," insists Ranieri. "You have to look at the whole story. Yes, we have had good moments; winning at Liverpool in our first match, Manchester United here, Besiktas, Lazio. They were good for our confidence, but also defeat is important, to link it all together, and for our players to understand that nothing is easy."

It is a stance Ranieri has maintained consistently since Abramovich started singing the Blues. That's why the manager has always refused to issue the declaration: Veni, vidi, vici. He's come, and he's seen all right. But as for conquering? He's always maintained that this will have to wait a while yet.

In the circumstances, anyway, it would be unwise probably to echo Caesar's words. Who knows what Brutus lurks? In fact, although Abramovich and Ranieri secreted themselves away for 40 minutes after the Liverpool defeat, it is considered likely that relations remain positive and will continue to do so while the manager retains the faith of the players.

"He knows it is not easy to build a team in one year," says Ranieri of the Chelsea owner when pressed on the outcome of the meeting. "I think he is satisfied, although like everyone else - like me, the players and the fans, and Peter Osgood [Ranieri enjoys throwing in the name of one of the club's illustrious old boys, who regularly pontificates about matters at the Bridge], he is not happy with what happened in the last month. I want to win every game, but what I must do this season is build a team. Mr Abramovich expects me to do that - not deliver the title or a Champions' League place."

Ranieri adds: "You have bad moments in football, as in life, and that's when you must show your character, strength and philosophy." One questioner at Friday's media conference with Ranieri was insistent that his team lacked passion in recent games. The Italian disagreed vociferously, and with some justification. The irony is that, despite Chelsea's numerous personnel, some of his squad actually appear jaded because of the fatigue of playing virtually every game. Notably John Terry, Frank Lampard and Claude Makelele.

This uninspiring interlude in Chelsea's season was always inevitable. Injuries were always going to impact on Ranieri's preparations at some point, with Damien Duff's dislocated shoulder against Fulham the most significant. The Irishman is back in training, and could return in a fortnight. Ranieri accepts that performances have been affected by his absence. "After that Fulham game, our tempo went down. Damien takes on opponents one against one, breaks the lines [of the opposition] and passes the ball very well. It is important that he comes back."

In addition, opposition teams are learning how to negate Chelsea, who have yet to achieve a blend of performers who communicate intuitively, as their counterparts do at Old Trafford and Highbury. On Wednesday, Liverpool, in a most depressingly negative manner which made you crave for the Liver boys of old, restricted the Londoners to two attempts. Leicester today, you suspect, will offer equal obstinacy. Ranieri analyses his side's problem thus: "Everybody wanted to do something more for the team and maybe that was wrong. Everybody must be more calm, like Arsenal, like Man-chester United. When they have a bad moment, they stay compact and wait. At the right moment they score a goal. We must be more patient in bad moments and wait for a change in the wind."

Some, such as Joe Cole, can be guilty of that tendency, but Ranieri is convinced he will flourish in time. "He's a good player to open the door. Of course, he always wants to do something more. But I like his character." The Italian will be more concerned about certain other players who have failed to translate what they achieved elsewhere. Géremi stands out as one. Adrian Mutu, without a goal in 13 games, may be considered another, although one can scarcely query his dedication to the cause. Reinforcements could well be heading into west London. Real Madrid's Ronaldo was never a contender, but further cover for goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini, defender Glen Johnson and another midfielder are conceivable.

What Abramovich has no desire to finance, for the moment, is a managerial putsch. But after the European Championships? Depending on England's fate, that could be a different matter, though much depends on Chelsea's progress and whether Ranieri can reinstate that sense of invincibility. This afternoon, at a location where one of the Premiership's most impoverished clubs would absolutely delight in pilfering the points from the multi-millionaires, would be an excellent place to start.