Prudence may prove to be Ranieri?s downfall

Chelsea 2 Fulham 1

The football principles by which Claudio Ranieri abides now seem increasingly likely to bring about his downfall. No matter how much there is to admire in Chelsea's coach, especially his phlegmatic response to rumours that his days at Stamford Bridge are numbered (Ranieri's agent Jon Smith conceded as much yesterday), caution overwhelms romance, the excitement craved by Chelsea's billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich.

With Martin O'Neill of Celtic emerging as the latest candidate, Ranieri's future surely lies elsewhere, no matter what the outcome of a quarter-final against Arsenal in the Champions' League and the possibility of securing second place in the Premiership. As ever, Ranieri remains unmoved, indicating in Saturday's 2-1 defeat of West London neighbours Fulham that he will do things his way until the end.

It is far too easy to say that the Italian is by nature a tinkerer who cannot resist playing around with the riches at his disposal, whose selections create dissatisfaction in the ranks and hinder the team-building process common to all outstanding teams.

Too much mind is the most consistent and damaging complaint. When Fulham's manager, Chris Coleman, whose attacking resources were made paper thin by Louis Saha's departure for Manchester United, reflected that Chelsea were there for the taking, he overlooked in his disappointment a period in the first half when Damien Duff and Jesper Gronkjaer were rampant on Chelsea's flanks.

With such pace and trickery at their disposal, Chelsea had the means to tear a solid but imaginative Fulham team apart, but Ranieri chose to sheath the blade. Bothered by the visitors' numerical superiority in midfield, Ranieri withdrew Gronkjaer at half-time, going to a narrower shape that had the effect of reducing Chelsea's attacking options. "We made more than enough chances to run away with the game," Ranieri said, explaining that the subsequent withdrawal of Duff was to protect him for Wednesday's encounter with Arsenal.

It was what Ranieri said next that got to the heart of things. "Sometimes it is not as important to play as well or better than the opposition," he asserted. "All that matters is making the net bulge." Presumably this had more to do with challenges that lie ahead than Saturday's encounter against comparatively moderate opposition.

If winning is enough for Ranieri, if it speaks of his homeland, if it appeases Chelsea's supporters, it cannot conceivably be enough for Abramovich, whose target of domination in English football goes hand-in-hand with the substance of excitement. Safety-first football does not figure in the Russian's ambitions, and on Saturday it left Chelsea's supporters unconvinced that this week will bring a first victory in 17 matches against Arsenal to secure a foothold in the semi-finals of the Champions' League.

When Eidur Gudjohnsen gave Chelsea the lead after only seven minutes, punishing slack defending with a check into space and a shot beyond Edwin van der Sar's dive, it seemed that Ranieri's team was about to warm up in style for the big match ahead. The move had class, Marcel Desailly breaking from midfield and Hernan Crespo's sharp run dragging two defenders out of position. "We were all over the place," Coleman grumbled. Had Gudjohnsen, who was generally impressive, taken the opportunity that fell to him shortly afterwards, only to volley over, Chelsea might have run away with the game.

A paucity of attacking ideas - "we didn't create anything," Coleman lamented - left Fulham clinging to the hope of something out of nothing. It materialised with the dubious award of a free-kick from which Mark Pembridge found the net with a shot that deflected off Gronkjaer in the 18th minute.

Almost immediately Gronkjaer and Duff switched wings. Where Moritz Volz had been able to deal with Duff's trickery, he found Gronkjaer's pace a different proposition. On the right, Duff became more dangerous than he had been on his more natural flank. Alert to the action when Van der Sar beat out a shot from Frank Lampard, he coolly restored Chelsea's lead in the 30th minute.

When Ranieri replaced Gronkjaer with Scott Parker at half-time, it was assumed that the Dane had picked up an injury but the switch was clearly tactical, bringing a dead hand to the game. It was yet another example of the Chelsea coach's prudence, a characteristic that will probably do for him.

Goals: Gudjohnsen (7) 1-0; Pembridge (18) 1-1; Duff (30) 2-1.

Chelsea (4-4-2): Ambrosio 5; Gallas 5, Desailly 5, Terry 5, Bridge 5; Gronkjaer 7 (Parker 5, 45), Géremi 4, Lampard 5, Duff 7 (Cole 5, 70); Gudjohnsen 7, Crespo 4. Substitutes not used: Sullivan (gk), Mutu, Huth.

Fulham (4-4-2): Van der Sar 6; Volz 6, Knight 6, Pearce 5, Bocanegra 5; Malbranque 6, Legwinski 6, Davis 5, Pembridge 5 (John 5, 63); Hayles 5 (McBride, 77), Boa Morte 5. Substitutes not used: Beasant (gk), Djetou, Goma.

Referee: N Barry (Lincolnshire) 6.

Bookings: Chelsea: Parker. Fulham: Legwinski, Boa Morte.

Man of the Match: Gudjohnsen.

Attendance: 41,169.