Vicarage Road 'bog' lies in wait for Ranieri's men

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The Independent Online

Claudio Ranieri's multi-million pound Chelsea squad have been warned to expect a "bog" of a pitch when they take on Watford at Vicarage Road in the FA Cup third round this weekend.

The Watford manager, Ray Lewington, has told Chelsea's expensively assembled group of internationals that it is already "impossible to play good football" on the First Division side's pitch.

Just to make matters worse, the Saracens rugby union team are due to play on the same surface less than 48 hours before Saturday's cup tie.

In normal circumstances, Chelsea would be expected to progress relatively comfortably through the third-round encounter, even though they are away from home against last season's losing semi-finalists.

But Lewington, whose side beat Cardiff last Sunday to move five points clear of the First Division relegation zone, warned: "If we get much more rain, the pitch will be even worse than it was last weekend - and it was bad enough then. We made a conscious decision to play a bit more directly against Cardiff on Sunday because of the condition of the pitch.

"It really is bad at the moment but it certainly isn't the groundstaff's fault. They do the best they can.

"It's a real bog and not going to get any better by Saturday, although I wouldn't think it would worry Chelsea too much. I am sure they are used to playing on good surfaces in the Premiership, but quality players react to any conditions - and they certainly possess plenty of quality."

Lewington, a former Chelsea player, knows that his side face a tough task in getting past Chelsea, let alone repeating last season's run to the semi-finals.

"If it was most other Premiership clubs we were playing, I would think we might have a chance but against Chelsea it will be very difficult," he said. "I still believe they could win the Premiership title, and Claudio Ranieri has done an excellent job in getting it to gel so quickly."

The Watford pitch could influence Ranieri's selection decision, with the Chelsea manager potentially turning to more English than overseas players as they are better accustomed to such conditions.

Indeed, the Blues prevailed 4-1 against Charlton last season on a pitch covered with sand. The lack of grass on the pitch prompted Charlton to ask for the match to be replayed, a request which was turned down by the Premier League.

Chelsea have revealed that the capacity of Stamford Bridge must be reduced by almost 5,000 for the home leg of their Champions' League tie against Stuttgart. "The problem has arisen because of the amount of outside broadcasting equipment required by Uefa for this stage of the competition," a statement said on the club's website.

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