Duff determined to survive the Robben assault

Calling Claudio's mum: Chelsea winger ready for the latest threat to his wing commander's role
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Mamma Ranieri is not a happy lady. Not happy with the way her beloved Claudio was rudely ejected from the Chelsea hot seat earlier this summer; not happy with the fact that her son was then forced to accept a reduced severance package in order to take over at Valencia; and not happy, above all, because Damien Duff's starting place is under threat yet again.

Mamma Ranieri was not alone in thinking that a change of manager would bring some respite to Chelsea's record signing and her favourite player. Duff, too, was hoping that Jose Mourinho's arrival would consign to history a frustrating first season that was tarnished by infuriating injuries and selection decisions. Instead, the impressive performances for Holland at Euro 2004 of the new signing Arjen Robben have heaped more pressure than ever on Duff's fragile shoulders.

Not that the player himself seems to have noticed. Duff has long been known for his laid-back attitude, and not even Robben's imminent arrival can ruffle the Irishman. "I caught one or two games of his at the European Championship finals," says Duff, who has almost made a full recovery following his shoulder surgery in May, "and I've heard rave reviews about him, so I know what to expect. The manager wants two players for each position and Chelsea don't buy bad players these days, so I'm ready for the challenge. Robben can only help me by keeping me on my toes, and I'm looking forward to linking up with him. I'm certainly not worried."

One senses that Duff would love to be left in peace on his favoured left wing. "It's where I want to play," he says, "but it may be irrelevant if the new manager drops the 4-4-2 system. I think the gaffer favoured a 4-2-3-1 at Porto and achieved great success, so I have to remain open-minded. It might feel odd at first, but I'd like to think I could adapt to a different formation. I am a winger, but I think I have more strings to my bow and can be flexible."

Duff is not a big fan of doing interviews - "I do as few as possible," admits this modest man from Bally-boden - but that does not mean he hasn't anything to say. Spend time with the 25-year-old and it soon becomes apparent that behind his quiet exterior lies a fiercely competitive soul.

Ask him, for example, whether Ireland's failure to qualify for Euro 2004 was a blessing in disguise because it allowed him to get a proper rest this summer, and Duff's expression says it all.

"No, it's been a crap summer, really," he barks. "I've had my arm in a sling and had to be a Euro 2004 spectator. As a footballer, you have a short career, so you don't want to be missing these major tournaments. When I'd be watching England I'd feel really gutted. It's when you can see the boys out there competing that it really hits home and you miss it."

Duff now has a fight on his hands to get back on the pitch. The Robben factor aside, he must first prove his fitness to the new manager. "Jose Mourinho definitely seems like he means business," Duff says. "His methods are intense but enjoyable. The training sessions are brilliant. It's all ball. Whereas with Claudio you'd come in and do running and stuff, with the new gaffer we do exercises with the ball at our feet. As footballers that's what we love. It reminds me a bit of Roy Hodgson when I was starting out at Blackburn. I'm loving it."

The question now is whether Duff will soon be match-fit. "I had the operation on 10 May," he explains, "just before the last game of last season. They say it takes three months to recover, but I'd like to think I'm ahead of that. I'm not yet ready for contact, because if I fell over I could easily damage my shoulder again, but hopefully I will get a game out in the United States [where Chelsea are going on a two-week tour from Tuesday]. Otherwise, I'll be raring to go for the opening day of the season against Manchester United."

It is little wonder Duff is champing at the bit. Having first dislocated his shoulder on 20 December last year, he then tore part of his Achilles tendon before falling over in training and damaging his shoulder again in April. "During the last few months of the season I could never really get going and I didn't enjoy myself," Duff admits. "That's why I came back to training early and worked my arse off to get stronger. I'm determined to have a good season."

Was last year a personal disappointment? "No, I still think it was great," Duff says. "It's been a new experience, working with better players at a massive club. I've loved every minute of it. I was thinking about this just the other day, and I came to the conclusion that I definitely made the right choice. One hundred per cent.

"I could have stayed at Blackburn in the comfort zone, knowing that I just had to turn up to be in the team on the Saturday, or I could come down here and play a totally different ball game, where you experience real pressure at all times. If you want to improve, you have to push yourself - it's as simple as that."

Duff, who completed only seven matches out of 22 starts in his first season at Chelsea, adds: "The only thing that affected me when I was fit was Claudio's rotation policy. There even came a time when I would start walking across the pitch instinctively after 70 minutes, because I knew I was about to be taken off. But the ups and downs have made me a stronger person and better player. I can cope with anything now."

Anything, that is, apart from another barren season. "When you look at the money we've spent," Duff says, "then we have to win something. We failed to deliver last year, so this time we have to get it right. With the players we have at this club, and the new boss, there is a lot expected of us, and rightly so.

"People said finishing second in the Premiership and reaching the semi-finals of the Champions' League last season was good, but the truth is that we have to do better. OK, so Arsenal were unstoppable last year, but it's our responsibility to change that. It would be a huge failure if we didn't win a trophy again this season, and I'm not going to let that happen."

Such fighting talk will be music to Mourinho's ears. And, who knows, perhaps even Mamma Ranieri is smiling.

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