A Chelsea director has said he expects Claudio Ranieri to remain in charge next season. In an interview broadcast before Tuesday's Champions' League victory over Arsenal, Paul Smith, who was the acting chief executive before Peter Kenyon's arrival, said Ranieri had been consulted "on the itinerary for the US tour and the preparation for next year's pre-season". Smith claimed: "If he wasn't going to be a party to next year's plans, we would've put that as a minor issue on our agenda."
The interview was broadcast last week in the United States on a Fox Sports radio programme. In it Smith, astonishingly, sought to blame the media for the uncertainty over Ranieri's future. "The only decision that has been made regarding Claudio is that he has a contract with the club until 2007," he stated. "Despite all the rumours and speculation ... we are treating Claudio as the manager for that period."
Given the clear off-the-record briefings by Kenyon that the intention has been to replace Ranieri, it may simply be that Smith is not party to the discussions that have been going on. Nevertheless the pressure has been growing on Chelsea's directors to reverse their decision to appoint a new manager in the summer - especially after the embarrassingly inept courting of Sven Goran Eriksson and, also, the dearth of credible, available candidates.
However, contrary to some reports prior to the victory at Highbury, which took Chelsea into the last four of the Champions' League for the first time, Ranieri has not been offered a 12-month contract extension or an improved deal.
It appears that what may have happened at a meeting last week between Ranieri, Kenyon and Roman Abramovich is that the coach threatened to walk out on Chelsea because of the way he has been treated. Instead, according to some sources, he was persuaded to stay with the verbal promise that he may be given one more season in charge. Whether that promise holds is another matter.
Either way, Chelsea's directors have been left to reflect on a public relations disaster, with the football world and even their own fans turning against them, at a time when the club are on the verge of their most successful season.
Abramovich yesterday took the unusual step of issuing a public statement on the defeat of Arsenal at the 18th attempt and the forthcoming semi-final against Monaco (ironically where the former chairman Ken Bates is now located).
Abramovich, who watched the game with his wife, Irina, and joined in the dressing-room celebrations afterwards, hailed the "Russian character" shown by Chelsea. He said: "Chelsea played great and I think the team showed the Russian character to hold on, to fight, to win. This is a great result. We are now waiting for Monaco."
It was a highly emotional night with Ranieri - the self-proclaimed "dead man walking" - in tears at the final whistle. There was also a charged response from Chelsea's players which betrayed the constant murmurings of discontent. Wayne Bridge, the scorer of the winning goal, indicated that the adversity surrounding the coach had helped to galvanise the players. "The team spirit has definitely grown during this season," he said.
Another of the night's outstanding performers and the other goalscorer, Frank Lampard, added: "Arsenal are one of the best teams in the world but we've beaten them, which gives us the belief we can go on and win the competition.
"It was a great night for the whole of Chelsea and I'm ecstatic. It's the best night of my career and a lot of the lads are saying the same thing." He also praised Ranieri. "He's a good man and deserves a lot of credit for the way he has handled himself. All the speculation isn't nice and he has done a great job."
For the coach it was also a vindication of his constant use of the squad rotation system with his players appearing fresher than Arsenal's. The Italian clearly got his tactics right as well as providing the exciting football he has been accused of stifling. It also means Chelsea maintained their incredible away record in Europe with a sixth straight victory.