Claudio Ranieri could make history by leading Chelsea into a European Cup semi-final over the next three weeks, without significantly improving his chances of remaining the club's manager next season. Ending the five-year hold that Arsenal have established over their London rivals might earn the gratitude of every supporter - as well as the probability of a glamorous pairing with David Beckham's Real Madrid - but the indications are that it would have no effect on his long-term job prospects.
Forget the boyish smile from the front row of the directors' box, which would be broader than ever if Chelsea were to emerge victorious from the first London derby in 49 years of European competition; Roman Abramovich did not get to become one of the richest men in Russia by allowing sentiment to influence business decisions. Sources close to him suggest he does not believe Ranieri is the man to take the club on to the next level of development, and a series of recent results ground out mainly by keeping the opposition scoreless have done nothing to reverse that opinion.
Going into yesterday's even more local derby with Fulham at Stamford Bridge, only Arsenal had breached the Chelsea defence in the past eight matches. But a total of nine goals scored in that same period, with just two of them from the £32.6m pair Adrian Mutu and Hernan Crespo, does not fit with the Russian's idea of entertainment - not at that price, anyway.
Supporters have been divided throughout the season about how well Ranieri has used the millions made available to him after Abramovich bought the club last summer. Early in November, when the team had lost only one Premiership match and lay a single point behind Arsenal at the top, callers to the radio phone-in 6.06 could be heard complaining about the poverty of a 1-0 victory at Everton. Sparkling successes in the next eight days, by 4-0 away to Lazio and 5-0 against Newcastle, won Ranieri more time and friends, but Chelsea have rarely, if ever, cut loose in similar manner since. A more familiar pattern has been established in eking out minimal wins from Scarborough to Stuttgart without anything like the sort of authority that £120m should buy.
The other complaint, familiar from long before the Russians arrived, is that Ranieri knows neither his best team nor his preferred tactics. A month ago he promised that there would be less rotation until the end of the season, because "I have a clearer picture of what my best 16-man squad is", but there is little sign yet that this is the case. Tactics and playing formations continue to vary within a match, which is another facet of the Italian's approach that English supporters (and some of the players) have struggled to take on board. In an unprecedented display of patience by Ken Bates, Ranieri was originally given five years to rebuild the club, but after three-and-a-half of them without a trophy he no longer has Bates's patronage to protect him.
Peter Kenyon, a few weeks into his role as chief executive after tending his garden from September until February, no longer wishes to discuss the managerial situation, but has been speaking about the steps Chelsea must take to ensure that the club's development off the field matches their ambitions on it. Having worked at Manchester United during the construction of an outstanding training centre at Carrington, he is conscious that Chelsea's facilities - a few pitches in the Heathrow flight path, hired from Imperial College - are embarrassing by comparison. "If you're going to build a world-class side, you've got to have world-class facilities, and we have an absolute commitment to that, which will require a substantial investment," he said.
Having had plenty of thinking time during the winter months, Kenyon is deter-mined that Chelsea should take the long-term view, rather than aiming for a quick fix achieved by an ageing squad. Hence the pre-contract agreed with the young PSV Eindhoven winger Arjen Robben while Manchester United (no doubt to Kenyon's delight) took their eye off the ball. In what might be construed as a little dig at United's old rivals Blackburn Rovers and Leeds, he added: "What it's definitely not about is buying a one-off success - buying a Champions' League spot doesn't work. This is about building sustainable success, not winning and then disappearing. Roman Abramovich is in for the long term. This is not a debt culture. In theory, we're the most secure and financially sound club in Europe."
The highly regarded Kenyon is, of course, very much a part of the new regime, having been brought in over the head of the existing managing director, Trevor Birch, who, like Bates, has now departed. Kenyon's recruitment illustrated Abramovich's policy of attracting the best available talent whatever the cost, which has been applied to players and seems certain to encompass managers too.
The only problem will be enticing the right candidate. Even multi-millionaires have to take heed of availability, which is why Arsène Wenger, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira will only be crossing the Thames for Wednesday's game, not a permanent stay. The possibility of Beckham returning to his native London so soon after joining Madrid made a good headline, but was never considered a serious possibility at Stamford Bridge.
Will Sven Goran Eriksson cross his personal Rubicon and return to club football? He claims, when pushed hard enough, to want to stay with England, and the Football Association will try to extract a promise to that effect during talks this week, but the Swede may still be open to persuasion if a tired squad perform poorly at Euro 2004. Chelsea are sensibly keeping their options open; hence last week's reported sounding out of Bayern Munich's Ottmar Hitzfeld, who was on a shortlist still dominated by foreign coaches.
When Charlton fans standing behind Ranieri during a recent game at Stamford Bridge began singing, "Sacked in the summer, you'll be sacked in the summer", he turned round to them and responded with a smile: "No, in May!" Is there an Italian equivalent of the aphorism that many a true word is said in jest?
The last time Chelsea outgunned the Gunners 11 November, 1998: Arsenal 0 Chelsea 5 Since that winter's night, the Blues have gone 16 matches (11 defeats and five draws) without beating Arsenal in any competition. Furthermore, that convincing win at Highbury was in the League Cup, an event that has never meant much to the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger. Dennis Bergkamp was the only regular in a line-up that included the then little-known Fredrik Ljungberg and Matthew Upson. Ashley Cole was on the bench. Chelsea, meanwhile, were at full strength, and their experienced stars won the day. Frank Leboeuf gave Chelsea the lead, before player-manager Gianluca Vialli and Gustavo Poyet netted two each.Reuse content