Tinker's curse as gamble backfires

Champions' League: Ranieri may have just wanted to show Roman and his critics that he could win in grand style

When opposing managers assess a football match, objective truth is usually to be found halfway between the two points of view. Chelsea's Claudio Ranieri believes Monaco have an 80 per cent chance of reaching the Champions' League final following their 3-1 victory over his team last Tuesday; Didier Deschamps reckons 51 per cent. Split the difference, and about 65 per cent is a more realistic figure.

The French side - exciting enough in attack to have scored 25 goals in 11 European games, but vulnerable enough for Chelsea to add to Hernan Crespo's precious away goal on Wednesday week - are unquestionably in the driving seat. But the steering wheel could yet be wrenched from them; or, Ranieri-style, they could suffer a sudden fit of madness and press the ejector button.

It has been a painful week for the Italian, who walked into his after-match press conference in Monaco with the words: "Good evening. But not a good evening." By the next media session on Friday, he was back to buoyant good humour, exhibiting far less tension than the reporter whose editor had insisted he ask whether Ranieri had deliberately thrown the match out of spite for Roman Abramovich, the owner who wants him replaced for next season (the response was a typically dignified "I think whoever said this doesn't know me").

But those who thought they did know the essentially conservative Italian tactician were among the most shocked observers of events at the Louis II Stadium. What was it that caused him to risk so much when everything was stacked in Chelsea's favour at 1-1 with an hour played and the opposition a man down because of Claude Makelele's shameful play-acting?

Far from wanting to lose the game, was there an element, however subconscious, of deciding to remind his critics (Abramovich implicitly among them) that this team could win in the grand style, just as they had done by 4-0 against Lazio in Ranieri's native Rome? That sounds more plausible than taking the risk of crossing off a European Cup final (and possible victory in it) from his CV as some sort of light-headed, demob-happy response to the revelation that the club's owner and chief executive had been on the Iberian peninsula making further attempts to line up his successor.

Whatever the case, it would be good to think the players were annoyed with themselves, rather than, as some reports have suggested, simply blaming the coach for the débâcle of the final 30 minutes. Eidur Gudjohnsen was first to hold his hand up, confessing to a complacent "slacking off"; Wayne Bridge did not volunteer that after crossing for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to head carelessly wide, he was still way out of position following the subsequent goal-kick, which left John Terry outnumbered and powerless to prevent Fernando Morientes striking a superb second goal. Nor was the goalkeeper, Marco Ambrosio, rushing to admit to a poor effort at preventing the third.

The best Bridge could manage was: "Everyone feels very disappointed but we've got to play the League games and when this game comes around make sure we're positive. It's still do-able, at the moment it's just a bit uphill. We have to put it to the back of our minds. There's still second place [in the Premiership] to play for."

Even allowing for linguistic nuances, there was a pessimistic sound to Ambrosio's assessment that: "I think maybe it is finished. At Stamford Bridge we will give everything. We know at home our fans will give us big support. But Monaco score a lot of goals and that is a worry.

"We played for one hour and it was a very good match but then it was like we were a mobile phone and someone had switched us off. I don't know why. We don't want to self-destruct and destroy everything we have achieved so far. It is very important for us to get to the Champions' League final. If we can do it that could change things for everybody."

Including the manager? Hardly, though Ranieri still believes, rather touchingly, that he might be in charge next season: "Honestly, I am not surprised if I stay or if I go. I have a contract until 2007. I think I could have a little more chance if I achieve something." Win the Champions' League? "Achieve something." In expanding three days after the event on his original explanation that he simply wanted to take advantage of having an extra man and go all-out for victory, the coach insisted: "I'm not a defensive manager, never. Not in Italy, not in Spain and never here. My first aim is win, win, win.

"Everything I did was wrong. I changed too early. But if we'd scored from two great opportunities before conceding a goal, then I made a good change. But we lost the match, so I think, 'F***ing Claudio, bad Tinkerman'."

The majority of Chelsea followers drowning sorrows in Monaco on Tuesday night and wending their way home the next day appeared to think just that, and had withdrawn much of the sympathy the coach earned for his dignity amid the drip-drip of insinuation once club officials began leaking like the old Shed roof. Ranieri chooses not to revise his estimate of a 20 per cent chance of progressing to the final, but has already told the players their task is the same as if they had lost the first leg 1-0, which would not have been regarded as a catastrophic result.

Nor is he even stressing the importance of an early goal at Stamford Bridge: "I'd like my players to remember how Manchester United won the Champions' League [with two goals in the final minute]."

Before all that, however, there are two Premiership games, the first of them at Newcastle this afternoon coming round too quickly for half-a-dozen injured players on either side, but not soon enough for Ranieri: "It's like when a Formula One driver's had a crash, he has to go very quickly to drive a car again." So after the Monaco Grand Prix, it is time for the troops to rally in a real test of character at St James' Park, followed by another on 8 May, away to Manchester United.

Chelsea's 1955 championship success is not going to be emulated (though that team won only 20 of their 42 games, as opposed to this season's 22 out of 34), but Ranieri's side need to believe they can complete the second most successful League campaign in the club's history by finishing as runners-up. As swan songs go, it would have a suitably bittersweet air. Fail now on two fronts and only bitterness will linger.