Damien Duff bent down, lightly touched the turf of Kuala Lumpur's Bukit Jalil Stadium, crossed himself, and then proceeded to enrich a contest of otherwise mundane quality with an exhibition of left-wing virtuosity. It mattered not that, by the conclusion of his half-hour's work, the Irishman's lungs must have felt as if they had been seared like barbecued steak. The condition necessary for 90 minutes will follow. As will those players who, if Chelsea's new owner, Roman Abramovich, has his way, will eclipse the Irishman both in stature and salary.
Wrenched from an initially reluctant Blackburn Rovers for an eventual sum of £17m, Duff has just a few days to revel in the belief that he is the principal acquisition of the Stamford Bridge summer- sales splurge. Yet within minutes of Chelsea departing the pitch after a 4-1 defeat of the Malaysia national side in the Asia Cup, which rewards them with a "final" against Newcastle today, reports emerged of the London club having failed in an audacious attempt to sign striker Raul from Real Madrid.
It's "pick a number, any number" time, with the Spanish striker's agent apparently suggesting Chelsea had offered over £71m for the player, and wages of £8.6m, although chairman Ken Bates swiftly rubbished that suggestion and manager Claudio Ranieri mischievously added: "Tomorrow it might be Rivaldo, the day after someone else. Maybe Raul must renew his contract [with Real]."
No matter; with the Champions' League eligibility deadline on Thursday week and Chelsea's first qualifying game against either the Slovakia side MSK Zilina or the Israeli team Maccabi Tel Aviv only a few days later, there is every indication that Chelsea will be back, if not for Raul, then for those approaching his allure. And sooner rather than later. By the time this is published, all may have changed once again - a New Chelsea day being rather shorter than any other club's - with Raul's team-mate Claude Makelele, Roma's Emerson, Newcastle's Kieron Dyer and Manchester United's Juan Veron mentioned in dispatches.
The director has, apparently, cast his co-stars; now he needs to find his leads. Or as Claudio Ranieri put it: "I have signed the good young players. Now I want the big champions." From Russia, under the galvanising influence of the billionaire oligarch Abramovich, comes revolution, not evolution, even though that policy transgresses every known football theory of the secret of success.
One would not fault Ranieri's initial four acquisitions, all from Premiership clubs, at an aggregate £37m, although in today's deflated market, the price paid for Duff appears decidedly over-generous. Glen Johnson is an able and intelligent young defender who drives forward with purpose. His headed goal against Malaysia epitomised that spirit of adventure. Wayne Bridge has the versatility to perform as left-back or left wing-back, and there was already the hint in his first game that he will develop a comfortable affinity with Duff, the pair thus providing Chelsea with the strategy to get behind the opposition rearguard and deploy effective crosses, as the latter did to fashion Eidur Gudjohnsen's goal. The fourth arrival did not play, but the pedigree of Cameroon international midfielder Géremi is well chronicled.
Already we have witnessed a transition in the Chelsea ranks. Just consider the Chelsea team who walked from the pitch last season, having beaten Liverpool in the season's final game to claim the fourth Champions' League place: Cudicini, Melchiot, Desailly, Gallas, Le Saux, Stanic, Lampard, Petit, Babayaro, Zola, Cole. Little more than two months later, in Kuala Lumpur they finished thus: Ambrosio, Bridge, Nicolas, Duff, Melchiot, Terry, Johnson, Gudjohnsen, Kneissl, Keenan, Hasselbaink. The only common factor is Melchiot, and although it is misleading, because some players were injured or ill on Friday, that comparison does offer an indication of the changing face of Chelsea.
The problem for Ranieri and his aides now is that it is one thing casting their expensive lures in waters where the big fish swim. It is quite another enticing them to bite. Thus far, Chelsea have succeeded in attracting players from West Ham, Blackburn, Southampton, and one on loan to Middlesbrough. Joining the Champions' League aspirants was always going to appeal as a sound career move. But would a player of Raul's prestige really contemplate moving from Real to a club who last won the championship nearly half a century ago? Even should one of those targets take the bait, would he be quickly assimilated within a pool of "lesser" species?
Such intakes inevitably result in unrest, although captain John Terry was adamant that the spirit, if anything, had been fortified by the imports and the rumours of more to follow. "At the moment, the players are happy; there is a great team spirit," he declared. "These are exciting times for Chelsea. We have a great squad now, we have a lot of games next year, and the manager can rotate the players."
Ah, rotation. Sounds wonderful. But as those who have been around the Bridge in recent years will attest, it can also destabilise a squad of even the most talented individuals. Therein lies the debate which will intrigue English football this season. Come next May, will Abramovich & Co have proved that money can buy immediate success? Or will disenchanted aficionados be asking: apart from his £140m that acquired Chelsea, what did this Roman ever do for us?
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