Beating Arsenal would help but Ranieri must borrow from the Ice Man

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The Independent Football

Claudio Ranieri must not blink today when he takes up his battle position at Highbury, at least in no way more worrying than a mere tic of the excitement which courses through his body at the first sound of a referee's whistle. Arsenal have never had a greater need to punish any mistakes by their west London rivals, and Arsène Wenger's team know a bit of devastation today could go a long way in a season critical to their future.

In just two months Ranieri has carried Chelsea to where his paymaster, Roman Abramovich, believes they should be, Premiership leaders with the potential for upward mobility that in the right hands could be stratospheric. But one question just won't go away: are Ranieri's the right hands?

We will know a little better after Chelsea's most serious examination in a League game so far this season, but even those who are drawn to their manager as a cult figure on the verge of happening have been beset by new and heavy doubt. Yes, Ranieri has done well to accommodate the £110m importing of talent and ego represented by such as Hernan Crespo, Adrian Mutu, Claude Makelele, Damien Duff and Joe Cole without any visible sign of exploding tension - while rising to the top of the league.

Certainly for the moment those who said that Chelsea were, despite such stockpiling of talent, going to resemble more a dog's dinner of colliding ambition than a banquet of the finer football arts, have been held in check, albeit with some performances that have looked a lot better in the results column than in the flesh.

However, two weeks on, no one, and least of all Ranieri, can talk us reassuringly through the dismay that came with his selection of players and tactics in the Champions' League game against Besiktas. Ranieri didn't just make a series of mistakes that multiplied like rogue blood cells during the course of a nightmare game. He went off the graph of miscalculation.

He read a situation, and particularly the weight of his available resources against that of the Turkish opposition, so catastrophically that he might have been grappling with Sanskrit. Abramovich, understandably, found it hard to conceal his pain and now there are two reasons why the rumours attached to Sven Goran Eriksson and a possible move to Stamford Bridge have hardened so markedly.

One is the meltdown against Besiktas. The other is Eriksson's handling of the England team on the approach to last week's critical game in Turkey. Ranieri lunged into a minefield. Eriksson tip-toed not only to survival but triumph.

Triumph of a kind, that is. Not an achievement to warm the blood or create a particle of belief that he has the qualities of vision and character that mark down the truly inspirational football man capable of winning a World Cup or a European Championship. No, what Eriksson did was something else entirely - but it happened to be in complete contrast to the work of Ranieri. At times, Ranieri runs to danger with the self-destructive lunge of a child and his own survival demands that he stops it. Eriksson walks coolly in the opposite direction.

Those who said that his position was spineless in the face of the threat of a players' strike, who believed in their bones that any football man worth his salt would have hammered the ridiculously irresponsible, thoughtless posturing of the rebels, were soon enough obliged to recognise that a course of action which seemed nothing short of moral cowardice left him without the hint of a flesh wound. Indeed, there he was with another big tournament qualification in his hand, reluctantly conceding that he was committed to England, at least for next summer's European Championship finals.

If you were Abramovich with that huge investment, you would probably be impressed by the sheer worldliness of the Swedish Ice Man. You would be bound to observe the skill of his evasive tactics and compare them to Ranieri's full-blooded embrace of disaster. But then perhaps you might have developed more than a sneaking regard for the crazy Italian. If you see football as a passion as much as a business, if the game is your adventure rather than just another branch of the money empire, maybe you might at least be taken a little with the living drama of Ranieri's style.

Of course, men who turn themselves into billionaires in a society as rapaciously competitive as that of modern Russia tend to develop a low tolerance for expensive mistakes, and Ranieri's reckless approach to the vast earnings of the Champions' League surely comes into that category. Still, it is just one lapse this season and a redeemable one at this stage.

We know well enough how Eriksson would play it at Highbury today - 4-4-2, which would be right, no passion, no hunches or flights of fancy. No Tinkerman routine. Just grind away at the law of football averages, boys. Trade on the weaknesses of the opposition, hope that Thierry Henry has one of his more distracted days and the Arsenal defence goes AWOL. It is the Eriksson way and it has brought England just one defeat in 19 competitive games. Such a record would leave Chelsea handily placed at the halfway stage of the Premiership race, and no doubt that is the appeal of Eriksson for Abramovich.

But if Eriksson might be a safe hand at a hugely expensive tiller, as he proved when getting the then mega-rich Lazio past the finishing post in Italy a few years ago, is he a Wenger or an Alex Ferguson, with the zeal and the flair to make a team not of reliability to a certain level but one equipped to keep on winning the big prizes? The evidence in Japan last summer, when England were so bankrupt of initiative when Brazil were down to 10 men, was not so encouraging.

This must be a caution on Abramovich when he comes to consider the future of Claudio Ranieri. In the meantime, the Italian has an extremely pressing imperative. He has to resist his crazier impulses. He has to borrow a few shards of ice from his potential usurper, Sven Goran Eriksson. Beating Arsenal would also be a big help.

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