Ranieri pleads poverty as Chelsea face Fulham examination

Blues aim to end losing streak in west London derby while Pompey defender looks to shine in tomorrow's south coast collision
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More than one Premiership manager could be excused for spluttering into his cup of tea this morning, for Claudio Ranieri is under the impression he is running out of players. Yes, the Chelsea manager, who bought an entire team in the summer, believes he is down on his luck in the forward and midfield departments.

No Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen? Oh well, it will just have to be Hernan Crespo and Adrian Mutu, with their combined cost of about £33m. No Juan Sebastian Veron or Emmanuel Petit? Wheel out Joe Cole and Geremi, for whom Roman Abramovich paid £7m in July.

Ahead of today's west London derby, what Chris Coleman would do for replacements such as that quartet of internationals. Instead by the time the transfer window slammed shut in August, Ranieri's counterpart at Fulham had only been allowed to bring in four new faces, including one on loan and a free transfer. On Mark Pembridge and Mark Crossley he spent the grand total of £1m.

However, Ranieri, the Italian with the ready laugh, was being deadly serious. Two consecutive defeats, at home in the Premiership to Bolton and away in the Carling Cup at Aston Villa, have not produced those absentees, but Ranieri is keen that they will be responsible for a positive reaction this afternoon. "I hope my players know how big this game is, especially after losing to Villa," he said.

It is not known how good the former Atletico Madrid and Valencia manager was at school, but it obviously left some sort of impression on him as he added: "In the Champions' League against Lazio was a good exam, like against Manchester United and Besiktas.

"Now this is another exam. We aren't in good condition at the moment, because we only got a point against Leeds [two weeks ago], then we lost to Bolton and Villa. Now I want to see our reaction. It will be another step."

Those two defeats were the first time the Londoners had suffered consecutive losses for ten months, when they were beaten at home in the Premiership by Blackburn Rovers and away at Newcastle.

A snapshot of Chelsea a year ago - pre-Roman Abramovich of course - is quite revealing. This very week in 2002 they also went out of the League Cup, although that was at Manchester United. The Blues stood third in the table - as they do now - after a 1-1 draw away to Middlesbrough.

The one difference - apart from £111m pumped in by the rouble-rich Russian - is that the club are still in Europe. Last year they were knocked out of the first round of the Uefa Cup by the Norwegian side Viking Stavanger. In this campaign they finished top of their Champions' League group, ahead of the likes of Lazio, Besiktas and runners-up Sparta Prague.

Although the club is now on a sound financial footing and in contention for its first League championship since 1955, Ranieri was playing down what Chelsea can go on to achieve. "I've said from the beginning that for us this season it is important to build a foundation," he explained. "We have exceeded my expectations, with the results and our position in the table.

"I think the defeats are a useful reminder but I don't want to lose every week. They are like a wake-up call. Today I want to see if the players are awake. But of course we cannot have consistency like Manchester United and Arsenal.

"It is not easy building a squad with ten new players who link well together," Ranieri continued. "We started well, we have got a lot of confidence and now we must continue in our job. Continue to work hard."

Ranieri was magnanimous in defeat - one of his most positive traits - in midweek, proclaiming Villa the better side, while feeling his team was "flat". They were not exactly mind games on the scale of Alex Ferguson or Arsène Wenger, but, ahead of the match at Loftus Road today, he was also quick to praise what Coleman has done for Fulham this season, since taking over from Jean Tigana.

The Cottagers are fourth in the table, although some 11 points behind their neighbours. More pertinently perhaps, Fulham are only three points clear of the team in ninth place, namely Liverpool. That tiny dividing line separates them from mid-table mediocrity. Only two points prevent Chelsea from reclaiming top spot.

Yet despite the table being so deceptive, Ranieri still feels Coleman has done an impressive job. He said: "They have won some very good matches," before adding, to much hilarity as he showed off a new word: "They are sparkling."

"For me Fulham's success this season is not a surprise. I think Coleman is very clever. Tigana did a fantastic job, but Coleman has changed some things and maintained a lot.

"I was waiting for this achievement from Fulham. If one manager leaves it is important the new man improves the situation, and Coleman is doing that."

The former Welsh international himself, in his first managerial position, is refusing to get carried away. Although he inspired Fulham to win at Old Trafford this season and is now hoping the Cottagers can beat Chelsea for the first time since 1979, his overall objectives have not changed. Coleman said: "We have to be realistic. It will be very difficult to stay fourth. To get into the top ten and achieve the highest finish in the club's history would be special, but the main objective is still to get to the 40-point barrier and be safe. I've banned any talk of the Champions' League or Europe at the training ground."

One thing for sure is that Coleman would die for a squad the size of Chelsea's, despite Ranieri's protestations. This is a fact that Coleman was keen to emphasise: "They have so many options in their squad that it's difficult to know what they will play like until the team gets on the pitch. Only then can you look at their formation and see. But we have talked about that in training and we'll be ready."