Monte Carlo has ruined many a gambler and Claudio Ranieri looks like proving no exception. The Chelsea manager began the day by risking all with an interview in which, it is claimed, he said his chairman, Roman Abramovich, "knew nothing" about football. He ended it by reverting to his Tinkerman reputation with a series of substitutions that destabilised his team so badly they threw away a winning hand.
With Hernan Crespo having cancelled out Dado Prso's early Monaco goal Chelsea looked favoured in this Champions' League semi-final first-leg when Andreas Zikos was dismissed for punching Claude Makelele after 53 minutes. Instead, late goals from Fernando Morientes and Shabani Nonda have them with a monumental task in the second leg on 5 May.
The pair scored after Ranieri continually re-jigged his side, at times playing Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink on the right wing in a three-man attack, Scott Parker at right-back, and Juan Sebastian Veron in a nebulous advanced midfield role. The upshot was that the attack was overloaded, the midfield undermanned and, with Chelsea naively pouring forward, the defence vulnerable to the counter-attack. It is not just Abramovich who sometimes fails to understand Ranieri's tinkering.
Chelsea must now win at least 2-0 at Stamford Bridge if they are to reach the final in Gelsenkirchen on 26 May. Their chances will not be helped by a suspension to Makelele who was booked for the third time in the tournament. Ranieri may also be without Marcel Desailly. The hugely experienced captain elbowed Morientes off the ball and while the referee missed it Uefa may take action. At least Ranieri should have Damien Duff restored to the side. Last night he was replaced first by Jesper Gronkjaer, then Veron, neither of whom presented remotely the same threat.
Ranieri has downplayed the comments made earlier yesterday. Maybe, maybe not, they had a ring of truth about them. One can certainly understand his frustration at Abramovich's impatience.
Last night, underlining the slow process of integration, he fielded just four post-Abramovich signings though that did not stop Chelsea starting like a team of strangers. Nervous and sloppy they conceded plenty of possession and free-kicks. This risky practice was punished after 15 minutes. Jerome Rothen advanced down the left but was felled by Mario Melchiot who was cautioned. Rothen's kick eluded Crespo, rose high off the hard surface and was powerfully headed beyond Marco Ambrosio by Prso.
The Chelsea support was stunned. They had spent the day enjoying the sunshine and the memory would be marred if Chelsea failed to respond.
To their delight Frank Lampard's 21st-minute cross enabled three team-mates to spring a pedestrian offside trap. Parker laid the ball back to Eidur Gudjohnsen who controlled it but slipped. With the Monegasque defence transfixed he managed, from his prone position, to hook the ball to Crespo who swivelled to score.
The goal settled Chelsea like an Alka-Seltzer. Within minutes Crespo, lunging to meet Lampard's cross, nearly had a second. But Monaco did not crumble. While Chelsea had never previously reached this stage of the Champions' League they were playing in their third semi-final. Didier Deschamps, their coach, was seeking to succeed where Arsène Wenger and Jean Tigana had failed and guide them past the last hurdle.
Giuly soon gave him hope of doing so as he streaked clear but John Terry made a crucial tackle. The first-half thereafter largely passed without incident. Not so the early minutes of the second. Only four minutes had elapsed when Morientes went down after being elbowed in the box by Desailly. To Morientes' fury no official saw the incident. Ambrosio then made a point-blank save to deny Julien Rodriguez and, following Giuly's chipped cross, Desailly cleared off the line from Morientes' overhead kick. The game then exploded as Zikos attempted to squeeze past Makelele and was blocked off by the Frenchman. Zikos claimed a penalty, Makelele gave him a nudge. As Makelele turned away, Zikos hit him with a rabbit punch. Contact was slight but Makelele went down as if clumped. This time Urs Meier did see it and Zikos was sent off.
With his defensive midfielder dismissed Deschamps brought on Edouard Cissé taking off Prso. Ranieri responded boldly, adding Hasselbaink to the attack, replacing Melchiot and briefly moving Parker to right-back. Robert Huth soon took over.
Gudjohnsen might twice have scored but Flavio Roma saved one effort and the other went over. It seemed not to matter as Chelsea continued to create chances, Hasselbaink heading wide from Wayne Bridge's deep cross. Their wastefulness, though, was to prove expensive.
Within a minute a long ball caught Chelsea dozing. Morientes burst clear and rasped a shot past Ambrosio. Then Nonda came off the bench and, with his first involvement, embarrassed both Terry and Ambrosio to score. Chelsea's continued European participation now looks as vulnerable as Ranieri's job.
Prso 17, Morientes 78, Nonda 83
Half-time: 1-1 Att: 15,000
Monaco (4-3-3): Roma; Ibarra, Rodriguez, Givet, Evra; Bernardi, Zikos, Rothen (Plasil, 89); Giuly (Nonda, 82), Prso (Cissé, 57), Morientes. Substitutes not used: Sylva (gk), Oshadogan, Adebayor, El-Fakiri.
Chelsea (4-4-2): Ambrosio; Melchiot (Hasselbaink, 62), Desailly, Terry, Bridge; Parker (Huth, 68), Makelele, Lampard, Gronkjaer (Veron, h-t); Crespo, Gudjohnsen. Substitutes not used: Sullivan (gk), Mutu, Cle, Geremi.
Referee: U Meier (Switzerland).