Ranieri and Chelsea running out of time

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The Independent Football

It is 7.43pm and the "dead man" is walking. Two minutes to kick-off and Claudio Ranieri steps from the tunnel at Stamford Bridge to embrace the next bitter chapter of his fate. The Champions' League tune has faded out, Arsène Wenger is in front of him, clad in his tailored suit, and Ranieri takes up his usual position on the touchline. Standing, arms folded. He never, ever sits.

It is 7.43pm and the "dead man" is walking. Two minutes to kick-off and Claudio Ranieri steps from the tunnel at Stamford Bridge to embrace the next bitter chapter of his fate. The Champions' League tune has faded out, Arsène Wenger is in front of him, clad in his tailored suit, and Ranieri takes up his usual position on the touchline. Standing, arms folded. He never, ever sits.

And then a strange thing happens. Ranieri doesn't move. He barely speaks. For the next eight minutes not a single word passes his lips. No instructions, no whistles ­ and no screams of exasperation. There is none of the slapping of his thigh, none of the explosive verbal rages, the all-too-easily defined Italianate shrugs. For seasoned Ranieri watchers it's unheard of. Gradually there is the odd instruction ­ a demand for Marcel Desailly to push up, a plea to William Gallas for more calm. To take his coach's lead.

When Claude Makelele is punished for a foul on Thierry Henry, there's no reaction. When possession is surrendered, nothing. "There's only one Ranieri," sings the crowd. And that one Ranieri simply gazes on.

It's the same pose he adopted in the warm-up as he stood detached from the £200m or so of talent that has been assembled. Penny for his thoughts. "They are my blood, my strength," Ranieri had said of those same players. He sounded more like a Roman emperor than a mere coach from the Eternal City although he had depicted himself as a gladiator. His defiance was defined. His fate resigned. His job may be gone, but his dignity would remain intact ­ even if the London Evening Standard launched its "Save Claudio" campaign yesterday, cladding Ranieri in full Russell Crowe-pose and touting him for the Tottenham Hotspur or even the Barnet job. It was meant fondly, it came across as poking fun at him.

The "Tinkerman" has often been his own worst enemy. Not least against Arsenal. Some of his biggest gambles have backfired. Aside from the many formation changes (4-4-2, midfield diamonds, 4-5-1 at home ­ even 3-5-2 in one Champions' League game), Chelsea have become, well, a bit boring. They may have gone into this match having not conceded a goal in over 8 1/2 hours of Champions' League action but they were, also, essentially negative.

Here they hustled, they harried. Frank Lampard, Parker, John Terry snapped into tackles. If Ranieri was going he was going fighting and his plea that his players were behind him seemed to be answered. On 36 minutes the dam burst, Parker was through and was unceremoniously stopped. Ranieri, finally exploded. He did so again seconds later when the referee's whistle halted Eidur Gudjohnsen. He couldn't suppress his nature any more. As Lampard shuddered Robert Pires, on half-time, the players reacted. Pushing came with the whistle. Lampard spat water towards the Arsenal bench. As Ranieri moved down the tunnel his face was contorted. Not frustration, not exasperation, just a private rage.

He transferred it to his players. The second-half started even more frantically. It became a frenzy with Gudjohnsen's goal. As the ball crossed the line, Ranieri stood frozen. A moment's delay. Of disbelief ­ and then the celebrations. After the disbelief came the lack of belief. Seven minutes later and the equaliser arrived. A curse under his breathe.

Wenger was up by his side now, gesticulating, and Ranieri shrank towards that tunnel. Confidence sapped. Something had to be done and he called for his £6m bit-part player, Joe Cole. The indictment of his regime. A player unsure of his best position and a coach unable to decide his best formation.

Desailly's dismissal barely registered on Ranieri. Adversity had dominated Chelsea's preparations. And here it had been added to further. How would they react? They ran out of time ­ a commodity Ranieri has also seen slip away.

At the end he stared at the turf and, then, a smile for Wenger. Advantage Arsenal although the dead man was still walking. But for how much longer?

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