Claudio feeds off rumblings of discontent

It was not just the status quo of politics in the capital that underwent something of an assault last week. New Labour in disarray in Brent East; New Chelsea ahead in the Champions' League polls as London's football power-base begins a swing away from Islington South.

One suspects that Arsène Wenger's men may yet have something to say about that if they can negotiate their way - as still appears likely, despite the tall-poppy pruners queueing up to dead-head his team - into the knockout stages of the European competition.

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the Chelsea Cosmopolitans are doing precisely what it says on the box that Roman Abramovich purchased. Nine games in both competitions, including yesterday's 5-0 rout of Wolves. Eight victories. One draw. In their first Champions' League group game for two-and-a-half years, a comfortable, albeit belatedly secured, victory in Prague.

Claudio Ranieri's men are not just short favourites to win their group but are now shorter than Arsenal, in the eyes of the odds-compilers, a necessarily astute brotherhood, to claim the title. One firm, astonishingly, make them just 22-1 to claim both the Champions' League and Premiership crowns.

In the directors' box, Abramovich, rising from his seat like Kruschev surveying his army from the Kremlin, acclaims a squad who are daily becoming less like their epithet the "Pensioners" and increasingly the "Predictables".

Yet already there is evidence of fissures, rumbles, within the foundations. Not quite a case of the comrades revolting, but signs to concern Ranieri. It should surprise no one that the principal source of that displeasure are the British Isles-based players. Damien Duff has expressed his frustration; Frank Lampard has indicated it; John Terry's expression when requested to keep the bench warm on Tuesday night spoke volumes.

And Joe Cole. Remember him? Once touted as England's best young midfielder, he now plays for Chelsea Very Occasionals. There are others too, of course, rotated out of contention or used sparingly, on Claudio's magic roundabout. Eidur Gudjohn-sen must have been fascinated by the inability of Hernan Crespo to profit from two inviting chances.

But it is the home players, who are perhaps less used to such a strategy compared to their continental counterparts, who are feeling the situation worst.

It was almost comical that Sven Goran Eriksson's aide-de-camp, Tord Grip, should travel to Prague, where four senior England contenders - Wayne Bridge, Lampard, Terry and Cole - could have been performing, to see only Bridge, who played 90 minutes, and Lampard, who managed half the game as a substitute. Glen Johnson played throughout - and he is not in the England frame at senior level.

While few would profess to comprehend Ranieri's mix 'n' matching, the theory goes that he prefers the more technically adept foreign players for Europe and the more physically inclined home performers for the Premiership. He denies that and, anyway, it may be, as injuries begin to reduce his options, that he will be forced to utilise the home-based players more frequently.

Lampard contends that Chelsea's growing contingent of malcontents should "look at the bigger picture". The problem is, no one appears to know what school Ranieri has in mind. For the moment it looks remarkably like abstract as the coach mixes his oils in a manner which precludes ready analysis.

On Tuesday at the Toyota Arena, it was apparent that the complexion Ranieri wanted to bring to the contest initially was one of caution. Chelsea lacked verve in an indifferent first period, but crucially they stifled the enthusiasm of Sparta Prague, for whom the former Manchester United player Karel Poborsky was the most influential figure. Once into the second period, in which Duff again displayed his defence-rattling capabilities, it was only a matter of time before the visitors claimed an important victory.

As we enter the second decade of the Champions' League, evidence of the first has indicated how crucial a stubborn rearguard is to a club's ambitions. Only Manchester United in 1999 and Real Madrid the following year of the winners have conceded an average of more than a goal a game. Ranieri has heeded that lesson. Chelsea's goals-against column in Europe is unmarked, and if there is any continuity in his teams it lies in the fact that both goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini and central defender Marcel Desailly were until yesterday ever-present this season. In New Chelsea terms, that amounts to a rare oasis of stability in a desert of uncertainty.

That is the one asset that Abramovich's millions cannot buy. Time will tell whether, under Ranieri's stewardship, it will evolve.

Comments