Defining moment for Chelsea as Ranieri fields 'best' side

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The Independent Football

Tonight is the moment of truth for the bejewelled inhabitants of the Chelsea dressing- room. Even before their Champions' League tie against Sparta Prague kicks off it will be a defining evening.

For the first time since the closing of the transfer window curtailed his spending Claudio Ranieri has his full squad available. No one is jet-lagged, no one is injured. For this critical match, their first of Group G, Ranieri will eschew rotation to select his best XI.

The players, from pre-Roman Abramovich veterans such as Frank Lampard and Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, to new recruits like Wayne Bridge and Géremi, will discover their real place in the pecking order. With 21 players having travelled to the Czech Republic, most of them full internationals, Ranieri accepts there will be many disappointed ones.

"It is impossible to keep everybody happy," he said yesterday. "I have spoken to them all and told them sooner or later everyone will play. Everybody must accept that.

"They know what will happen if the atmosphere is not good. If they cannot accept it I am sorry, they can stay and rest in London."

There, presumably, they would be left to train with the already-exiled Winston Bogarde until the transfer window re-opens. Ranieri was, though, keen to accentuate the positives. "A big squad with many options is not a problem. It is exciting."

Such is the level of competition there are three strong contenders to play right-back tonight, Glen Johnson, Mario Melchiot and William Gallas. There are also two rivals for left-back, four for the two forward places and a plethora in midfield.

Though Ranieri said players would be picked on merit, adding: "I have never said 'he costs that much, so he must play'." The bulk of the new signings are likely to start. This could mean Lampard and Hasselbaink, both of whom have begun the season well, losing out to newcomers Claude Makelele and Hernan Crespo. Having only had one training session with Makelele, Ranieri admitted there was an element of risk in playing him but said: "Everything is a risk. We can only find out on the pitch."

One player who has already experienced this situation is Géremi who frequently found himself omitted at Real Madrid. Even when, three seasons ago, he scored a telling goal against Bayern Munich in the European Cup semi-final he was then left out of the final.

"In this situation you have to be ready to play whenever you get the opportunity," he said. "And you have to play well every match. In this team, if you play badly you will lose your place."

As if Ranieri's task was not hard enough, even the players currently in the team are not entirely happy. The form of Damien Duff has made him, with Adrian Mutu, one of the untouchables but he is yet to play a whole match and he is not happy about it.

"In one of the games soon I would like to get a full 90 minutes," he said. "I was gutted to come off after 70 minutes against Spurs. It seems like it happens every game. I didn't like coming off at half-time against Blackburn but it was a tactical change. The gaffer likes to make a change so what can you do? It doesn't help playing in different positions either but I am big enough and strong enough now not to let it get me down."

What this evening's team selection, and future ones, may show is that Ranieri is developing two teams, one for Europe, with players like Crespo and Juan Sebastian Veron, and one for the domestic game with Hasselbaink and Lampard. There is some logic in this. As Géremi said: "There is a big difference between playing in England and playing in Europe. It is not easy to switch from one to the other." Significantly, he added: "All the players want to play Champions League."

One suspects it is also Abramovich's priority but Ranieri again sought to downplay expectations: "Chelsea are a curiosity at the moment," he said. "There are bigger teams, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Manchester United, Juventus. They are not concerned about us now. Maybe in two, three, four years we will be like them."

Chelsea are already a big club as far as tonight's opponents are concerned. Sparta Prague may have won eight of the last 10 domestic titles but, like most Eastern European teams, they are constantly being depleted with this summer's main loss being defender Zdenek Grygera to Ajax.

With Jiri Novotny having earlier departed for Russia Sparta's game now revolves around defender Petr Johana, Montenegrin striker Igor Gluscevic, and the veterans Jiri Nemec and Karol Poborsky. The latter, once of Manchester United, will doubtless find much to discuss with his former Lazio team-mate Veron.

Sparta Prague (probable, 4-4-2): Blazek; Petras, Hubschmann, Johana, Zboncak; Poborsky, Zelenko, Nemec, Jezek; Sionko, Gluscevic.

Chelsea (probable, 4-4-2): Cudicini; Johnson, Terry, Desailly, Bridge; Géremi, Veron, Makelele, Duff; Mutu, Crespo.