Real Madrid's all-star Class of 2004 may have missed out on a place in the Champions' League semi-finals, but that has not stopped the most famous galactico of them all dominating the pre-match headlines. Such has been the level of interest surrounding David Beckham's possible - or should we now say probable? - move to Chelsea this summer that everyone seems to have forgotten the London club are just three days away from the biggest game in their history.
Despite their best efforts to stay focused on Wednesday night's second leg against Monaco, most of the Chelsea players are allowing themselves the merest of peeks into a future with the England captain. "You don't need me to talk about the qualities of David Beckham as a footballer," Eidur Gudjohnsen said after training on Friday. "He's a player who is admired throughout the world. He's pure quality."
And Beckham quality comes at a price that only Chelsea can afford. Who knows exactly how much, but it is fair to assume that the combination of Real Madrid's debts and Roman Abramovich's wealth will lead to an exorbitant fee. The Spanish have issued only the tamest of denials, stating: "We do not say anything until the club give us official confirmation of deals."
That is as good as a confirmation from the club who gave us the "never, never, never will we sign David Beckham" line this time last year. Meanwhile, the Chelsea hierarchy were nowhere to be seen or heard yesterday, leaving their beleaguered manager, Claudio Ranieri, to pick up the pieces. "I admire everything about him," the Italian said of Beckham. "The whole world knows him and he's a great footballer, but I find it strange that this story comes up now." That is, unless the deal is being brokered on behalf of Chelsea's next, yet unannounced, manager, although newspapers in Madrid were yesterday convinced the player would stay there for another season.
No wonder Chelsea's players are struggling to keep their heads down. Gudjohnsen was trying his hardest not to get too involved in all the speculation, but even the normally discreet Iceland international relented in the end. "I don't want to get into whether we should buy him or whether he's available," he said. "I don't want to get excited about a player joining us before he's here. When and if he arrives, then we'll get the excitement out of the way. He's a tremendous footballer. He would obviously bring a lot of quality to our team."
Not to mention unwanted attention at a club desperately trying to find some sense of normality after 10 unsettling months. "I don't think the press in England will ever change," said Gudjohnsen, when assessing what impact the Beckham circus might have if it rolled into Chelsea Village next season. "It's something that people in the spotlight have to live with. But I can't see it being negative to us as players or as a team. I don't see any negativity in Beckham coming here."
While Gudjohnsen would welcome Beckham's arrival, not least because Chelsea are in desperate need of a player who can give them natural width on the right to balance Damien Duff on the other wing, he is anxious the club do not launch into another mad shopping spree. "If we can add quality to our squad then why not recruit?" he said. "But I don't think we need another 11 players. Whether quality players become available or they'll be a good addition is not down to me. But you can't buy everyone in the world. You have to work with what you have and add quality to that. We need to find a structure for the team and a balance. That's what it's all been about this year and what the manager said at the beginning of the year: we want to build a team. That is probably on the way now."
The irony is that no sooner have the manager's lavish assortment started to gel as a unit than Ranieri is on his way out. The Italian is sure to be replaced come the end of the season, even if Chelsea manage to overturn the 3-1 deficit from their disastrous semi-final first leg at the Stade Louis II. Gudjohnsen is just the latest player to lend his support to the doomed manager. "Probably, yes, he should stay," the 25-year-old said, "because he knows the players that are here. He knows this team. I think we've learned a lot from each other as players and as a team this year. Even though our results have not been so good recently, we seem to be getting to know each other. We have to take that forward. But it's not up to me to say whether he'll be here next season or not. I think we've all backed the manager, and we'll continue to do that until something different happens."
That "something different" became inevitable after Ranieri's bizarre tactical decisions contributed to Chelsea's downfall in Monte Carlo two weeks ago. Drawing 1-1 at half-time and in complete control following Andreas Zikos's 53rd-minute expulsion, Chelsea were destabilised by the Italian's multiple substitutions. So far as the board are concerned, the blame lies squarely with Ranieri. But what of the players? "I don't want to criticise the manager solely, for arguably strange substitutions," a diplomatic Gudjohnsen suggested. "We lost our shape as a team. We stopped playing the football we'd played in the first half and we all seemed to forget our jobs on the pitch."
Was that not due, at least in part, to Ranieri's tinkering? "The manager can be criticised by the media for doing this or doing that," Gudjohnsen said, "but it's all a matter of opinions. The fact we still had 11 players on the pitch, one more than them, says a lot about us as players. We need to take the blame as a unit. We're in it together, we're a team."
So how would the players rate their season if Chelsea finished second in the Premiership and went out of the Champions' League on Wednesday? "We might all feel that if we'd taken our chances we could have gone one better," Gudjohnsen said. "For a team with so many new players to adapt into the squad, it would be a good season. But not an amazing one." Cue the Abramovich chequebook.Reuse content