Money to burn but can Ranieri buy time?

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The Independent Football

Angels are those brave souls who invest in shows in London's theatreland. You may have a Joseph on your hands, but there is a chance you will be rewarded for your initiative with a flop that becomes an obscurity in a matter of weeks. The composer and lyricist may be distinguished, expenditure vast, principals top-drawer and the direction visionary; yet ultimately nothing can prevent it closing prematurely. The alchemy is simply not right.

The thought comes to mind as you contemplate the spectacle of the haloed form of Roman Abramovich hovering in similarly expectant manner over football-land. Dress rehearsals have been auspicious, but once the curtain rises on the first night, can this production of epic proportions truly enjoy an extended run?

As the sixth and seventh of Chelsea's summer intake, Juan Sebastian Veron and Joe Cole, proceeded to take their places and their vows of commitment - despite becoming members of a Chelsea midfield so congested that it's a surprise the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, hasn't issued a charge on it - the suspicion is that everything here has occurred in the order of least effectiveness.

The first, and incontrovertible, law of football is that champions are constructed, component by component (albeit that some are expensive) under a skilled master builder, a man who plans and painstakingly lays his foundations and maybe makes some mistakes on the way; they do not arrive in a prefab condition, to be swiftly assembled on site.

A few have attempted the feat. The late Jack Walker's Blackburn notably secured the 1995 championship with the acquisition of Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton, among others, but even that hardly represented such a full-scale renewal of a squad as Claudio Ranieri is attempting. And Liverpool, under Graeme Souness, devoted a significant outlay to reclaim the glory years of the Sixties and Seventies. Souness had to buy to rejuvenate an ageing team, and did so on a significant scale with such names as Paul Stewart, Nigel Clough, Neil Ruddock, Julian Dicks, the Hungarian Istvan Kozma and the Dane Torben Piechnik, but the Scot would himself concede that his strategy was not an unqualified success.

At least Kenny Dalglish, at Blackburn, and Souness, at Liverpool, enjoyed full freedom to take whatever action they required, virtually without restriction. One suspects that Ranieri has not been quite so blessed. Though he remains impressively impervious to all of the many slights regarding the duration of his stewardship, the Italian undoubtedly recognises, like the rest of us, that the chances of his still being in tenure in a year's time are slender, with the spectre of the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, who could become available next summer, constantly in the background.

For the moment, the responsibility of justifying expenditure of the Abramovich millions lies with him, and Ranieri is convinced that there should be reinforcements for every position to allow for the rigours of domestic and European competition, their first Champions' League game taking place on Wednesday against the Hungarian side Zilina. Once Chelsea acquire that final striker - if not Christian Vieri, then maybe the Real Mallorca forward Samuel Eto'o or Leeds's Mark Viduka - there will be cover in every position, something even Arsenal and Manchester United cannot boast.

"I have 22, 24 players at the moment. Too many, too many!" Ranieri said with a knowing smile. "It is very important that my players understand the new opportunities. All the big teams have good champions [his synonym for top players], they must understand this. I picked every one of my players, everybody, and then they know I like them. But I must pick 11. If they understand this I think we are halfway there. We have four competitions, and at the moment you play every three days. I need everybody. I like to make changes in a match, but the style, the philosophy we keep the same."

Nevertheless, the fact that the Italian, who self-mockingly refers to himself as "The Tinker Man", now has no fewer than nine midfielders, all of international quality, suggests there will be some bruised egos in the months to come. It is barely conceivable that, outside Old Trafford and Highbury, such illustrious names as Veron and Cole, could be denied a starting role. But that is the reality of Stamford Bridge, 2003.

Yet for Cole, captain and icon at West Ham but here just another midfield craftsman, this could be the making of him after a period in which his progress stalled. "All last season, apart from perhaps the first few games, I was playing out of position," he said. "I didn't get forward as much as I'd have liked. But because the team seemed to gain better results when I played that way I tried to do it every week. Now I'm here I'd like to get further forward, though you can't expect it automatically when you come to somewhere like this, because every player is quality. It's going to be a challenge."

Veron, reportedly on a salary of something approaching £5m a year, will be entitled to believe that in this midfield pecking order his cluck is the loudest. Significantly, when it was put to him that he had been played out of position too many times at Old Trafford, he declared: "It could be one of the problems, but as I have said before, what I lacked was the continuity in the team throughout the season. Of course, I spoke to the manager, but in a big club like that, with so many good players, I had to take advantage of the time and places I could play."

He added: "In Italy I had five brilliant years. What I aspire to do here is to create the same image of myself that I had there." The ensuing question was a natural addendum: will he achieve such an image by in effect taking a step down from the champions? "There are very few clubs like United in the world, but Chelsea have also become as big, if not bigger, than Manchester United," was his response.

Uttered, no doubt, as an act of diplomatic necessity, it is a statement that will satisfy that archangel who now surveys all at the Bridge. Whether it bears any truth in the harsh world of the Premiership we will begin to discover in a week's time.

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