Chelsea eager to end waiting game

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The Independent Football

For Chelsea supporters with long memories tonight's Champions' League semi-final tie represents the chance to end a wait which has lasted nearly half-a-century.

In 1955 Chelsea, the Football League champions, were invited to join a new pan-Continental competition. "Better not, old boy", was the message to the Chelsea chairman from the insular League, "fixture congestion and all that". Unlike Manchester United the following year, Chelsea tugged their forelocks and turned down the offer, so missing out on the inaugural season of the European Champion Clubs' Cup, now the Champions' League. It was not until 2000 that Chelsea got back into the competition, when they lost to Barcelona in the quarter-final.

In the meantime clubs from six British cities reached the final, five of them claiming the trophy, but still no London team has reached the final. The nearest were Tottenham in 1962, Bill Nicholson's team of Dave Mackay and Bobby Smith losing to an irrepressible Benfica.

Paris and Berlin are also yet to produce a finalist while Rome has never had a winner but Claudio Ranieri, a Roman, was sincere when he said: "It is strange and surprising that no London team has reached the final. The city has very good teams. For us it would be a great achievement to get there."

Chelsea's chances of doing so, to the eternal chagrin of Arsenal, Spurs, Fulham and West Ham supporters, will be hampered by injury and illness. William Gallas (hamstring) joined Carlo Cudicini (finger) on the injured list while Damien Duff also failed to travel, Ranieri citing a "fever". Eidur Gudjohnsen and Hernan Crespo, having just recovered from the same illness, will be given fitness tests before Ranieri decides his team. John Terry is expected to overcome an ankle problem but Juan Sebastian Veron lacks match practice and is likely to start on the bench against Monaco.

Crespo, scorer of 25 goals in this competition, hopes to play. "I have a good record of scoring in the Champions' League," he said. "Maybe this season has not been the best for me but my goals have been waiting for the great moment. This is my moment." Reviewing his squad Ranieri admitted the most significant absence. "Duff is our wizard and without him we must do something different," he said. The choice is between choosing an offensive player, such as Jesper Gronkjaer, or a defensive one, like Geremi. Since the direct opponent will be Ludovic Giuly, Monaco's captain and creative director, it is a key decision. "He is like Gianfranco Zola," said Ranieri of Giuly. Gronkjaer will not contain Giuly, but he may press him back; Geremi is better equipped to mark him, but may invite pressure.

Ranieri recognises that Chelsea need to score. Manchester United celebrated a goalless draw here in the 1998 quarter-finals only to realise how misleading the result was when they conceded within 10 minutes in the second leg at Old Trafford. However, he also knows Monaco, though a high-scoring team, will not be a reckless one. Said Ranieri: "Didier Deschamps [Monaco's coach, and a former Chelsea and Juventus player] has worked a lot in Italy so it will not be like playing a French team, it will be like playing a good blend between French football and Italian tactics. They beat Real Madrid and Deportivo [in the group stage]. They deserve all our respect."

Deschamps has also learned not to provide motivational material for the opposition. Asked to single out Chelsea's weaknesses he said: "They are the complete team. They have no weak points."

As always with Chelsea the backdrop is the debate over Ranieri's future. Deschamps steered clear of several invitations to suggest he would like to be Chelsea's next manager, instead talking sensibly of the mixed blessing of a limitless budget. Ranieri repeated his awareness that his fate had always been subject to Roman Abramovich's whim, regardless of results. The freshest contribution came from Marcel Desailly. Eschewing the usual pledges of support customarily offered up by the club's English players, he said: "We don't put more emotion, more desire, into our game because this is happening. We are professional. The way we train and focus shows we like him. If something happens at the end of the season we will show him the feeling we have."

Back in 1955 Chelsea, had they entered, would have had to beat Djurgardens of Sweden, Hibernian and Stade de Reims to reach the final. Ted Drake's side, with Roy Bentley leading the forward line, would have fancied their chances of doing that, if not of defeating Real Madrid in the final.

To get to the brink of this year's final Chelsea have had to despatch Zilina, Lazio, Besiktas, Sparta Prague, VfB Stuttgart and Arsenal. It has been a much tougher haul than it would have been 48 years ago, and they must not underestimate the work still to do.