All season, playing the genial clown has been Claudio Ranieri's chief weapon to defuse awkward situations. But at full-time yesterday not even he could force a smile.
One League defeat against Arsenal, however significant in the championship race, should not the destiny of a manager shape. And yet Ranieri knows the speculation surrounding his future will increase in the coming days. Lose heavily in Wednesday's Champions' League tie against Stuttgart and it could be the end of the road for the Italian. One can only hope it isn't, because he deserves more time to get it right.
Ranieri remains forever locked in a no-win situation. When Eidur Gudjohnsen put Chelsea ahead after a mere 28 seconds, Ranieri was a genius, a master tactician who had cracked the Arsenal conundrum. But 14 minutes later, as Arsenal equalised, he was a naïve and flawed coach. By the time the game entered its 22nd minute, Ranieri was facing the sack for gross incompetence. Welcome to life as the Chelsea manager.
No matter that the players who had taken the lead and scared the wits out of Arsenal in the opening exchanges were the same ones who then folded so dramatically; Claudio was to blame. Win, and the players are doing well; lose, and the coach is not getting the most out of his troops. In fact, no manager, including Sven Goran Eriksson, could have legislated for Gudjohnsen's stupidity, having received one booking for diving and then earning a second for tripping Gaël Clichy when there was no immediate danger.
This is not to say that Ranieri is totally blameless. For example, his decision to spend £10m on Scott Parker looks more misguided by the week, as the former Charlton Athletic player has upset the midfield balance. Indeed, tiredness alone cannot explain why Frank Lampard has gone off the boil so spectacularly since Parker started operating in the same areas as him. The issue needs addressing before the midweek trip to Germany.
Having managed some of the more demanding clubs of Europe, such as Fiorentina, Atletico Madrid and Valencia, Ranieri knows all about excessive pressure. But this is unprecedented. Irrespective of the manager, no hastily assembled team can be expected to lift the Premiership at the first attempt. Even Blackburn Rovers, the last club that can be said to have "bought the title", needed two seasons and a second place finish before winning the trophy.
Ranieri always knew this, which is why he warned the Chelsea supporters and board members the title was not a realistic target in this maiden campaign. "Chelsea is a baby," he repeated yesterday. "We are not a team yet and we still have a lot to learn." He is right, of course, but his logical pleas continue to fall on deaf ears. Few people, it would seem, can understand why a motley crew, however expensive, cannot match a close-knit team.
Edu, who must be a contender for the most improved player of the Wenger era, best summed up the gulf when he described Arsenal as a "big family". The Brazilian would not openly criticise Chelsea, but there was no doubting his target when he spoke of "some teams not having our togetherness". "We are one strong unit at Arsenal," he said, "and we look after each other. Look at Gaël Clichy [the 18-year-old who deputised so well for Ashley Cole at left-back yesterday]. He is a kid who needed protection, and we all made sure he got it."
Unlike Chelsea, Arsenal were at one yesterday. One passage of play midway through the second half illustrated the difference between the two sides. Arsenal strung together more than 30 passes in the space of a couple of minutes, working in clever triangles and supporting each other at every opportunity. Then, John Terry finally broke the sequence and, with options all around him, promptly gave the ball away. Even with a man less, one would have expected an international player to be able to find a blue shirt.
Passing was not the only gap in quality between the two teams. Desire played a huge part. Where Arsenal have a strong team ethic and an obvious determination to succeed, Chelsea have a soft underbelly. Even after they had gone behind, the Arsenal players kept their cool and, most importantly, their discipline. Perhaps they have been well drilled, but perhaps, too, they possess an inner-belief that cannot be shaken.
"We have a lot of spirit," Edu said, "but experience, too. We know we can come back, no matter what. That's why we didn't panic when we went behind. We kept our heads, started doing all the things we do best, and turned the situation around. We never give up." Nor should Ranieri.Reuse content