My underdogs are in good condition, says Ranieri

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The Independent Football

It's probably not true that Chelsea chartered a plane to take them from Heathrow Airport to Stansted yesterday. Although given the weirdness of Planet Abramovich few would wonder if they had done. In every other way, however, Claudio Ranieri is treating this evening's Champions' League quarter-final second leg against Arsenal as a European engagement.

Last night he exercised his right as the away team to train his players on the Highbury turf and, he said "try the new balls which we have to play with".

Quite rightly too. Chelsea's away record in this competition this season is unmatched - even by tonight's hosts or the imperious holders Milan. In achieving victories over MSK Zilina, Sparta Prague, Lazio, Besiktas and VfB Stuttgart on the road, they did not concede a single goal and scored 12. Not one tie resulted in them drawing a blank although, also, in none of them did they have to score as they do now.

"We are in good condition," said Ranieri after he breezed in to speak to the press with the quip: "your flight was OK?" He added of his team's form - five Premiership victories in succession - "I don't know if it is the best but Arsenal are 30 games without losing in the league." However, he quickly reminded everyone "they [Arsenal] have not lost in the league but this is the Champions' League." Hence his singular preparations.

"We are underdogs but I like to remind the players that so far in Europe we have won every time away," Ranieri said. "We have scored every time and that is very important."

While an underdog the coach could not resist adding - perhaps mindful of his own career prospects - "I like to be the owner not the dog". Nevertheless, he still wishes he had a lead. "We will try to put them under pressure but I repeat they are favourites," Ranieri said. "They scored the goal at Stamford Bridge. If the match finished 1-0 it would have been different."

An additional - potent - ingredient is the effect last Saturday's FA Cup exit to Manchester United will have. Ranieri was having none of it. "The last match against Manchester they [Arsenal] did not want to fight 100 per cent and they have a rest," he said. "And that means they have a lot of fresh players."

In truth only Thierry Henry was omitted but Ranieri insisted that if Arsène Wenger had "wanted to try to go to the final" he would have played a different game. "I don't think that Arsenal are in crisis," he said. "They are in good condition. They are strong. A good team and they want to win."

It makes Ranieri's team selection all the more delicate especially given his penchant for persisting with the out-of-sorts Hernan Crespo. Sense would appear to dictate that he lists the starting XI who coped so efficiently in beating Arsenal's north London neighbours, Tottenham Hotspur.

Granted they face a different calibre of opponent but the inclusion of Scott Parker and Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink would undoubtedly sharpen Chelsea's chances. But sense has gone out of the window so often this season. If he did field the same line-up it would, astonishingly even for Ranieri, be the first time this season he has not tinkered.

"In my opinion, Chelsea is in a good moment to improve this year," he said. "That is important. Arsenal is one of the big teams not just in England but in Europe. They have worked hard for four years to reach the final. Chelsea started this season and I think we have made a good foundation this year. Everything will be better in the future." For now it is the present that matters and there may not be a better time for Ranieri to finally beat Wenger.

"If Arsenal win it is normal," he said. "Nothing changes. Seventeen or 18 [games without defeat against Chelsea] continue in this way. But if we win anything can happen." Indeed it could.