Ranieri's fate looks sealed even if he can conquer Europe

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The Independent Football

Claudio Ranieri's patience finally snapped yesterday when he was asked once again about his Chelsea future. "I cannot look too far forward and you know why better than me," he said with a tetchiness that betrayed the frustration he undoubtedly feels over whether Roman Abramovich has decided to replace him as the manager. "If you are writing every day - 'arriving Eriksson, arriving this, arriving this' - then how can Claudio Ranieri look forward?" he added.

Word is the deed has been done. Ranieri's fate is sealed. Whether his successor is Sven Goran Eriksson, Fabio Capello, or whoever, is less certain. Indeed, ultimately, Ranieri's future may depend more on the availability of such candidates rather than his team's performances. Amazingly, even winning the Champions' League may not save him. No wonder he is frustrated.

When commenting on the acrimonious departure of Ken Bates, Ranieri sounded as if he could have been talking about himself. "He brought the team to a higher level and now there is a new era," he said. "Everything has changed and it is time to look forward."

Chelsea will tonight compete for a place in the last eight holding a somewhat fortuitous 1-0 lead over VfB Stuttgart, the young Bundesliga side who made such a trailblazing start to the season. Stuttgart were undefeated in their first 15 league matches - also beating Manchester United - and, despite an alarming slump, have still conceded only 10 goals in 23 games. That miserliness is their most potent weapon. In winning last weekend, against Borussia Dortmund - their first win in their last eight matches - Stuttgart's defensive wall was formidable.

Ranieri, who was at the Westfalen Stadium and heard the boos of frustration from Dortmund's fans, knows it. And although the normally sanguine Italian may be losing patience with the media inquisition, he also knows that his players, and Chelsea's fans, will have to show forbearance. Rashness will be costly, especially considering the frustration Chelsea felt at home in the group stages.

"When we play abroad the other teams want to win," he said of Chelsea's extraordinary record away from Stamford Bridge in this competition (five wins and five clean sheets). "But at home, Besiktas played very deep and counter-attacked, Lazio the same, Sparta [Prague] were not only behind the halfway line but the [penalty] box and it was very difficult to score," Ranieri added. Stuttgart's coach, Felix Magath, also spoke of the "difficulties" Chelsea have at home. He will probe them.

It is why Ranieri believes his team have to get a goal and why he may give Damien Duff his first start of the year, after assorted shoulder and Achilles injuries, the latter of which is still troubling him. Duff can "open every door", Ranieri said. "For the strikers he's very important," he added, citing the 11 assists the Irishman has accrued.

Duff has also been a frustrated figure of late and hit out after the signing of Arjen Robben, a left-winger like himself. It is unthinkable that Duff is not in Chelsea's plans and it may be that he is switched to the centre or right, as Ranieri has done in the past, when Robben arrives. "I believe in his [Duff's] quality," Ranieri said. "He dribbles and crosses very well or when we play him in the middle he can make the final pass."

Ranieri was then asked if there was any player he would liken to Duff. Quick as a flash he answered: "Nedved. My mother says that! My mother says 'Remember Nedved'." Ranieri's mother is, apparently, Duff's biggest fan, while the biggest fan of Pavel Nedved, the Juventus midfielder, is, apparently, Eriksson, who has, if reports are to be believed, already secured the Czech player as his first signing for Chelsea next season. At least, amid the tumult, Ranieri has preserved his humour. He needs to.

Chelsea (probable 4-4-2): Cudicini; Johnson, Gallas, Terry, Bridge; Géremi, Lampard, Makelele, Duff; Crespo, Gudjohnsen.

VfB Stuttgart (probable 4-4-2): Hildebrand; Hinkel, Meira, Bordon, Zivkovic; Hleb, Meissner, Soldo, Cacau; Lahm, Kuranyi.

Referee: K M Nielsen (Denmark).

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