Renewed Ranieri will keep tinkering

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The Independent Football

Chelsea go into the most important tie of their future with not only a new owner, a new team, but a new coach as well. Claudio Ranieri, who has been in charge for the past three years, claims he is a man reborn by the largesse of Roman Abramovich.

"Do I feel like I am a new manager? Yes, of course I do," he said ahead of tonight's Champions' League qualifier first leg against MSK Zilina. It is the biggest match in the 95-year history of the little-known Slovakian double-winners, who have never played an English side before. It could be argued it is also the biggest tie for Chelsea.

"Everything has changed," said Ranieri. "This is the new Chelsea because old Chelsea could only sign one or two players. This Chelsea signs a lot."

Indeed it does. Nine this summer and counting, although the latest, and potentially most exciting, the Romanian striker Adrian Mutu for £15.8m joins too late to qualify for this tie. But it is not just for the new faces - Damien Duff, Juan Sebastian Veron et al - that Ranieri is "new". "Also for my old players as well," he said. "I am a new coach."

A new coach maybe, but one with the same old ways. Ranieri's habit, damaging at times, of varying line-ups and formations has been much criticised. He has turned it into a self-effacing joke, referring to himself as "the Tinkerman". And the Italian acknowledges that he could be in his element with his extravagant resources. "I choose my players because you know I am the Tinkerman," he said. "And some players can play in a number of positions. The Tinkerman never stays with the same formation."

So Veron and Joe Cole may play together, or they may not. Cole may play in central midfield, left or right, or he may not.

Zilina, although dogged and defensively sound, should not prove too taxing an opponent even if they sprung a surprise in the last round by dumping out the Israeli champions Maccabi Tel Aviv. They lost their best player, Marek Mintel during the summer to the Bundesliga for 1/50 of the fee it took Chelsea to get Duff and there are just two internationals in the squad. Their record signing, Martin Fabus, cost £100,000 - or one week of wages for Veron - and he is unlikely to play.

At the same time, no one is more aware than Ranieri of his team's appalling recent record in Europe - losing embarrassingly in the Uefa Cup to St Gallen, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Viking Stavanger in consecutive seasons. Not something Abramovich will countenance being repeated.

Ranieri is also aware that leaving Slovakia with the right result is only one consideration. There needs to be a reasonable performance too in the 6,000 capacity Pod Dubnon Stadium, 150 miles north of Bratislava, if questions are not going to be asked, again, about his own prospects of continuing.

Will the players be nervous? "If they are nervous then I will shoot myself," he joked. His team selection will be much scrutinised - and not for the last time this season. Mario Stanic, Bolo Zenden and Winston Bogarde have not travelled (the first two are injured) while Emmanuel Petit is not fit enough to start. Not that the absences exactly leave his options stretched. So how will Ranieri keep such a large squad happy?

"They must understand that with a big squad there are still only 11 players on the pitch," he said, while at the same time dismissing the notion of playing one team in the Premiership and another in Europe. "Others stay on the bench with me and other champions are in the stand."

A surprise casualty could be Frank Lampard; a surprise inclusion the young Finnish striker Mikael Forssell.

Champions already, at least in Ranieri's estimation, although not as yet in the Champions League proper. If that is something that proves beyond them, then Ranieri's boast that the club has a new coach may become reality in a more literal sense.

The last time the Romans invaded Slovakia they did not get as far as Zilina, in the foothills of the Tatras mountains. This time, Ranieri will hope, the incursion is more successful.

MSK Zilina (probable, 4-5-1): Trabalik; Konecny, Zabavnik, Labant, Stas; Barcek, Strba, Sninsky, Bazik, Durica; Sabus.

Chelsea (probable, 4-4-2): Cudicini; Johnson, Terry, Gallas, Bridge; J Cole, Geremi, Veron, Duff; Gudjohnsen, Forssell.

Referee: R Temmink (Neth).