Lampard's display slows the Ranieri rumour mill

Chelsea 3 Portsmouth 0
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The Independent Football

According to reports emanating from Madrid this weekend Claudio Ranieri was to have been dismissed as Chelsea manager yesterday and replaced by Inaki Saez, the Spanish national coach. Ranieri only survived to oversee this match as Saez wants to think the offer over.

However, according to reports emanating from England's tabloid newspapers, Sven Goran Eriksson remains Ranieri's successor, this old chestnut being given a twist by the improbable inclusion of Steve McClaren accompanying Eriksson as his No 2.

Of course, these reports may be as reliable as Jesper Gronkjaer's final ball but the speculation illustrates the mixed blessing of being the man charged with realising Roman Abramovich's ambitions. Ranieri, it would seem, can buy anything except time and, after three defeats in four matches, that had begun to appear in short supply.

Thus it was with relief yesterday that Ranieri watched his team shake off their first-half torpor and ultimately put a persevering but limited Portsmouth side to the sword. For all the exotic and expensive acquisitions it was, as so often this season, the yeoman figure of Frank Lampard who played the critical role in lifting a side visibly short on confidence.

Ranieri had made five changes to the team which lost at Charlton on Boxing Day. One was enforced, Neil Sullivan replacing Carlo Cudicini who suffered a thigh injury late in the Boxing Day defeat at The Valley. It was the former Tottenham goalkeeper's first Premiership appearance since March 2002 and his first for Chelsea. "Rotation" might normally be the reason for the other changes but, given their performances at Charlton, it may be more accurate to describe Glen Johnson, Marcel Desailly and Joe Cole as dropped.

Initially it seemed this tinkering had had no impact. For the opening 40 minutes Chelsea were leaden-footed, reactive rather than proactive, and easily contained by an injury-hit Portsmouth side focussed on defence. Passing either square or badly they created only half-chances, two of them missed by Adrian Mutu and the other by Eidur Gudjohnsen.

The best chance had fallen to Portsmouth, who had not beaten Chelsea since the days when Terry Venables and Jimmy Greaves were swinging down the King's Road more than 40 years ago. It came after 28 minutes but Yakuba, their lightning quick but head-down winger, shot wide when he should have found Jason Roberts.

Then Lampard, 30 yards out, turned and hit a ferocious drive. Though it rapped the post, and rebounded to safety via Harald Wapenaar's back, the effort lifted both his team-mates and the home support.

Equally importantly, Ranieri then demonstrated why Abramovich may persevere with him. Identifying Portsmouth's supremacy of numbers in central midfield he moved Geremi inside, asked Mutu to rove from the left flank, and freed up Lampard to push forward more regularly.

There was one other significant event, a hamstring injury to Steve Stone. To Harry Redknapp, the Portsmouth manager, it was the turning point. Stone had provided an intelligent presence on the Portsmouth right, keeping Wayne Bridge occupied and almost scoring from Yakubu Ayegbeni's cross soon after the break. His replacement, Sebastian Schemmel, was more defensive and Bridge pushed on, to dramatic effect.

With just over an hour gone Geremi spotted the England left-back moving forward. He immediately delivered a sublime ball which Bridge chested down then drove past Wapenaar.

Unwisely, Bridge celebrated by taunting the Portsmouth fans, running past them with a hand cupped to his ear then exulting in front of them. He had been provoked - as a former Southampton player he had been abused thoughout - but can expect a quiet word of reminder as to his future conduct from the Football Association.

Portsmouth, forced to attack, were then undone by a superb counter-attack. Geremi, deep in his own half, played the ball forward to Mutu who was flourishing in his new role. The Romanian beat Boris Zizkovic then fed a perfectly weighted pass into the path of the onrushing Lampard. His one-touch finish ensured Redknapp, Lampard's uncle and former manager at West Ham, would go pointless.

With 10 minutes left, Geremi gave the scoreline an undeserved gloss with a spectacular 20-yard volleyed lob in reply to Arjan de Zeeuw's headed clearance of yet another inaccurate cross into the box from Gronkjaer.

"I thought after Frank hit the post it would be impossible to score but in the second half we were better," Ranieri said. "December has been a bad month for us and in the first half we had been nervous. I'm sure the New Year will be better. Of the speculation he added: "This is normal. When we win Mr Abramovich wins. When Chelsea lose Ranieri loses. Perhaps the Spanish press want me back [he used to work at Atletico Madrid] but I work very well here and I continue here."

Goals: Bridge (62) 1-0; Lampard (70) 2-0; Geremi (80) 3-0.

Chelsea (4-4-2): Sullivan 5; Melchiot 6, Gallas 6, Terry 6, Bridge 7; Gronkjaer 3, Makelele 6, Lampard 8, Geremi 7; Mutu 7, Gudjohnsen 6. Substitutes not used: Ambrosio (gk), Johnson, Desailly, Hasselbaink, Cole.

Portsmouth (4-1-4-1): Wapenaar 4; Primus 5, Stefanovic 5, De Zeeuw 6, Zizkovic 5; Hughes 4; Stone 7 (Schemmel 4, 52), O'Neil 4 (Taylor, 83); Berger 5, Yakuba 4 (Robinson, 83); Roberts 4. Substitutes not used: Srnicek (gk), Sheringham.

Referee: G Barber (Tring) 7.

Man of the match: Lampard.

Attendance: 41,552.

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