Mama's boy Duff wants to be let out to play at Arsenal

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"Claudio's a good son but sometimes he doesn't listen to his mama and so I have to tell him off, especially when Damien Duff doesn't play" - Renata Ranieri, 84.

Given that 10 other players have made more starts than the club's £17m record signing this season, we can assume Signora Ranieri has upbraided the Chelsea manager a little too often for her liking. She is not alone. The deployment of Duff has been one of the most infuriating aspects of The Tinkerman's gameplan. Not least because, like any talent in his exposed position, Duff needs confidence.

And confidence comes from playing, not least for Duff who makes no secret of his desire to take part in every minute of every game. He is not good at hiding this desire, not least because, above all, when he plays, Chelsea play. Their most convincing and exhilarating performances - away to Liverpool, home and away to Lazio, home to Newcastle United, spring to mind - have involved the Irishman.

The accusation Chelsea have faced most often - from their owner, Roman Abramovich, no less - is that they do not entertain enough. And Duff is their entertainer. Thirteen 1-0 victories have left Abramovich and his coterie less than impressed, although - in truth - they have simply been searching for excuses. They conveniently ignore the fact that no team, not even Arsenal, have scored more Premiership goals.

Nobody at Chelsea would quibble over a 14th 1-0 scoreline tonight. It would be enough to knock out Arsenal and take Ranieri's side into the last four of the Champions' League. Such a result is not inconceivable. And both managers have identified Duff as the one to watch.

"He adds something offensively to their squad, without a doubt, and he's a major danger," Arsenal's Arsène Wenger said. "I feel he's had a great season. He can run at you with the ball, he can provide crosses, he can score goals. He is one we have to keep quiet." Ranieri, despite the criticism he has faced over Duff, agrees. "He is an amazing player," he said. "He has ability, speed, he can dribble, cross the ball - I want him to play as he can. Duff is the man who can open every door. He can score a goal and make one, too. His qualities are very important to us." Ranieri also notes that no one, not even Thierry Henry, has amassed as many assists, 15 so far, to add to his six goals.

It seems unlikely - though not inconceivable given this season's craziness - that Duff will start on the bench. Ranieri will have seen the success Manchester United enjoyed in the FA Cup semi-final when they stretched the play, through Cristiano Ronaldo in particular, and occupied Arsenal's full-backs. Duff can perform a similar role and, given his ability to play left or right, could be used against the less experienced Gaël Clichy, whose positional sense was tested on Saturday, rather than the more physical Lauren.

Whatever his deployment Duff is clearly back to his best after the shoulder and achilles injuries which stalled his season over December and January and left him feeling low. The statistics are also revealing. The bald fact is that half of Chelsea's eight defeats have been inflicted when Duff was absent. Because he has made 35 appearances and not featured in 13 games, that is a noteworthy return.

But, above all, he has re-energised his team-mates, most noticeably Frank Lampard who had begun to look tired. When Duff came off the bench - again - against Wolves last month, Chelsea scored four times inside 30 minutes. He gave them an attacking option they had so clearly lacked. He also gave them balance and, crucially, occupied the opposition.

With his unkempt hair, his unaffected airs, eyes that always seemed to need more sleep and his almost gauche ways, "Duffer", as he is known, even by his parents, has been an unambiguous success. No one now questions the transfer fee which last summer was so clearly balked at by the club he wanted to join, Manchester United.

Nevertheless Duff, despite having settled at Chelsea, has been frustrated by the injuries and the interruptions. He spoke out about not wanting to be constantly substituted. Injudiciously, he also described Chelsea's signing of Arjen Robben as "a kick in the teeth", resurrecting talk that Duff would indeed end up at Old Trafford.

His former Republic of Ireland team-mate Tony Cascarino summed up the feelings of many when he said: "Too often he has sat on the bench, while players have played out of position on the left flank, or he has been constrained by their tactics."

The 25-year-old from the Moyville estate in Ballyboden, on Dublin's south side, has attracted plaudits from all quarters. Many concur with the assessment of his former colleague at Blackburn Rovers, the goalkeeper Brad Friedel, who rates him higher than Ryan Giggs, or that of his international manager, Brian Kerr, who simply reminds his charge that "we all love you". One of the most arresting comments has come from Tom Finney - no mean judge - who says Duff has "the potential to become one of the all-time greats". With his joyous style and his bravery, not to mention his skill, he deserves to succeed.

The attention does little for him. He agrees to few interviews and winces when he sees things about himself in the newspapers, although that is changing. In the past he has simply asked, after that old cliché, for his football to do his talking for him. "I want to play. It's as simple as that," he says. Chelsea's fans will hope that Ranieri will accede to his request again this evening.