Hernan Crespo, Chelsea's £16.8m signing, was yesterday decribed as "unprofessional" by an angry Claudio Ranieri after the Argentinian aggravated a calf strain during Wednesday night's home defeat by Liverpool.
Ranieri revealed that Crespo, who had missed the holiday fixtures because of a virus, had come to him on Tuesday and said that his calf was sore. Ranieri thus rested him from training. On Wednesday Ranieri asked Crespo if he was fit to play. The player had insisted he was. Ranieri, though surrounded by qualified medical staff, took him at his word. Ten minutes into the match Crespo pulled up lame prompting a furious outburst from Ranieri on the touchline.
"It is sad," Ranieri said when he had cooled down. "Hernan said he was OK but he will now be out for three weeks. He was unprofessional, but he wanted to play." Beforehand Crespo, who has also suffered from a niggling groin injury this season, had said: "Have faith in me, I will score the goals to help Chelsea's title challenge."
Ranieri was upset as he can ill afford to be without Crespo, because his other forward signing, Adrian Mutu, is struggling for goals and confidence having not scored in 10 weeks. With Gudjohnsen having had to replace Crespo so early, Ranieri was also left short of attacking alternatives as he tried to wrest a draw from Liverpool in the closing stages.
He failed and Chelsea slipped further behind Manchester United. Their defeat of the champions on 30 November was seen as a seminal result at the time and so it is beginning to appear, but not in the way anticipated. United, stung, have responded with a maximum 18 points from six Premiership matches. Chelsea have taken seven from the same sextet, thus letting a four-point advantage become a seven-point deficit.
They have been without Juan Sebastian Veron and Damien Duff for much of this period and the pair's absence has been significant for Chelsea have struggled to break down packed defences. "This is not a good period for us but I have said all along that we are not ready to fight for the title with Manchester and Arsenal," Ranieri said. "I am not happy with our results but I'm not worried. We lost but we played our best.
"There isn't any team that can stay at a high level for 11 months. When we were at the top of the table I said it was not important, that we had to continue to build. It's easy for people to say that we are fighting for the title. I'm fighting to build a team. Do I still believe there is patience to do that here? Yes." Ranieri said this despite an extended post-match de-briefing with Roman Abramovich, the club's owner. He added: "Mr Abramovich is not happy but he is patient. It was a long talk. We always have a meeting, but not always for so long."
The bookmakers were not convinced. Ladbrokes swiftly cut their odds on Ranieri being the next Premiership manager to leave his job from 8-1 to 6-1. However, despite winning Wednesday's match Gérard Houllier remains 6-4 favourite to go first, with Kevin Keegan, at Manchester City, also shorter-priced than Ranieri at 4-1. Chelsea moved out to 5-1 for the championship, the biggest price they have been since the start of the season.
Ranieri again insisted he was happy with the squad he has though there was increasing speculation last night that Petr Cech, Rennes' Czech goalkeeper, would become the club's first signing of the transfer window. He will become the club's fifth senior goalkeeper not including Lenny Pidgeley, who is on loan at Watford.
Houllier might suggest you can never have too many goalkeepers, having lost another. With Chris Kirkland already out with a broken finger, Jerzy Dudek suffered a groin injury against Chelsea. That left only the 23-year-old Patrice Luzi, who made an emergency debut.
Luzi did well after a nervous start, but Houllier will investigate the possibility of making an immediate signing ahead of tomorrow's game against Aston Villa. "I may need a new goalkeeper," Houllier said, "though if Patrice has to play, he will fill the position very well." More positively, Houllier hopes to reintroduce Michael Owen for the first time since November and was delighted at Bruno Cheyrou's first League goal. "He has talent," said Houllier, who criticised the 25-year-old Frenchman during Monday's AGM.
Cheyrou, who was signed for £3.7m from Lille, yesterday admitted: "I know the manager made comments at the meeting on Monday, but I think what he said was fair. I certainly haven't done what was expected of me. Now I will try do my best to do something about that. For me, it feels like I have paid something back by scoring against Chelsea, but I want to do a lot more. I hope I can still be a success at Liverpool. It's not been a good start for me, but I hope this will be like a new start now."Reuse content