Ranieri hunts for Chelsea's true soul


Italian pinpoints lack of English spirit in multi-national squad at Stamford Bridge.

Italian pinpoints lack of English spirit in multi-national squad at Stamford Bridge.

It's been another exciting week for the leading English clubs, with Manchester United, Arsenal and Leeds reaching the second phase of the Champions' League, Liverpool progressing in the Uefa Cup and Chelsea... er, watching on television. For a club that two years ago believed itself to be emerging as the third force in the domestic game behind United and Arsenal, that was a depressing experience.

Chelsea, it may be recalled, had qualified for European competition for the fourth year running by winning last season's FA Cup, Gianluca Vialli's fourth trophy in less than two and a half years as manager. Under the Italian's stewardship, they also finished fourth, third and fifth in the Premiership and reached the Champions' League quarter-final last April before beginning a new season by beating United at Wembley. Then, two days before the Uefa Cup tie against St Gallen of Switzerland, Ken Bates' perennially itchy finger twitched once more and Luca was on his designer bike.

There was shock inside Stamford Bridge as well as outside. Just over 48 hours later, as supporters chanted Vialli's name, the team looked predictably out of sorts in scraping a 1-0 victory over the Swiss champions, who overturned it in the second leg before Vialli's unexpected replacement, Claudio Ranieri, had had time to exert significant influence.

Eight weeks on, that influence is slowly being felt, though the blue jury is still out. "In my career as a Chelsea fan I've often been disappointed, but rarely as bemused as I am right now," writes Mr David Mellor in the Evening Standard. At home, Ranieri's new charges, playing a 3-4-3 formation, have conquered Liverpool (3-0), Coventry (6-1) and Tottenham (3-0) in convincing fashion, but away from London they have given themselves mountains to climb before scrambling back towards the summit at Manchester United (3-3), Sunderland (0-1) and Southampton (2-3).

That last result was the most damming, recalling as it did memories of Vialli's Chelsea taking two impressive strides onward and upwards in places like Milan and Rome, then slipping backwards at Watford or Derby. Even if Southampton's winning goal was a splendidly struck free-kick in the last minute, there seemed something symbolic in the move having begun with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Gianfranco Zola arguing at the other end of the pitch over which of them should take a Chelsea free-kick.

Interestingly, for one who still conducts training sessions in Italian and Spanish, and has made a Yugoslav and Dutchman his first two signings, Ranieri sees the solution to Chelsea's problems as greater Anglicisation. " Spirito inglese" was the phrase that occurred most frequently in his media briefing ahead of tomorrow's game at home to Leeds, and bringing more English players to the club was seen as the best way of achieving it. "I like the spirit of the English game," he said through an interpreter. "I like the way they want to win. You have to get the players to play in the spirit of the nation they are playing in and what I'm asking for is English spirit. So if I had more English players we'd have more of it. That's what the English are masters at.

"In my first interview, at Manchester United, I said that we don't have an inferior team but all that's missing is the English type of spirit. If we can assemble that, we are on a good road. The second half of the Southampton game (coming from 2-0 down to 2-2) was great English spirit. I said at half time let's play like the English."

To an interrogator who persisted with the entirely reasonable question of why, in that case, Chelsea were not signing more Englishmen, he responded with a smile: "Are you an agent for English players?" before adding: "There may be players I'm interested in. In Italy or Spain or Holland I'd prefer to have a spine from the country I'm managing in. But obviously when you inquire about a young English player they ask a lot more money. To want is one thing; but to do is another thing."

For the moment, any young Englishmen joining a Chelsea training session might find the language barrier a tricky one to hurdle. In a tracksuit, Ranieri is an animated figure, accentuating his already demonstrative gestures to make his point to a squad of 15 nationalities (the same number as the European Community and almost as many as Nato).

Zola appears to be interpreting for Dennis Wise and Gustavo Poyet has taken on the role of translating from Spanish, to Ranieri's occasional alarm: "If you journalists say it's chaos, you're right because it's Poyet who creates chaos," he laughs, before going into a pantomime reminiscent of Manuel in "Fawlty Towers". Ray Wilkins has become as valuable an asset for his Italian language skills as his coaching ability but Graham Rix, who should clearly have paid more attention in Spanish lessons at school, now finds himself helping out with the reserves.

If supporters are ambivalent about the new man, Bates and his managing director, Colin Hutchinson, the only men who matter at Chelsea, are happy enough. "Luca was successful in his own way and I think Ranieri will be successful in his," Bates said recently. "One thing you are noticing is that we're playing much wider down the flanks which I think is enabling us to stretch sides' defences and get the goals we've been lacking."

Hutchinson, whose influence at Stamford Bridge is widely underestimated, said: "He's settled in very well. He's moving into a new home in town on Monday, which will help and he's not far away from being able to hold a conversation in English."

With a tight hold on the purse strings, Hutchinson is aware of how much this week's absence from any European competition, let alone the Champions' League, is costing. Taking advantage against Leeds of the fatigue (not to say complacency) that so often effected Chelsea on the weekend after a midweek trip abroad would be one small consolation. Unfortunately there will be a good deal of spirito inglese in the visitors dressing room - and among all other opposition for the rest of a season now confined to domestic football.

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