Victory would trap Chelsea in two minds

Champions' League: Ranieri's skills on and off the pitch turn the pressure on those who want to see him leave
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"Even if Chelsea return home with the Champions' League trophy, Claudio Ranieri will still leave." The words have been casually cast into print like so much blossom on a spring breeze. Yet they do not begin to convey the reality. Consider the reaction. A fervent homecoming through the packed streets of west London, players and coach hailed alike on their open-topped bus. Acclaim from commentators, and even followers of rival clubs, for this, Chelsea's finest hour since the European Cup-Winners' Cup triumph of 1971 and the club's sole top-division championship in 1955.

"Even if Chelsea return home with the Champions' League trophy, Claudio Ranieri will still leave." The words have been casually cast into print like so much blossom on a spring breeze. Yet they do not begin to convey the reality. Consider the reaction. A fervent homecoming through the packed streets of west London, players and coach hailed alike on their open-topped bus. Acclaim from commentators, and even followers of rival clubs, for this, Chelsea's finest hour since the European Cup-Winners' Cup triumph of 1971 and the club's sole top-division championship in 1955.

And what then? Presumably a respectful pause, before a bland statement from Stamford Bridge - maybe leaked on a "bad news day" - informs us: "Mr Ranieri will be leaving the club by mutual agreement. We would like to thank him, etc." Then another hiatus before a new man - the Porto coach, Jose Mourinho? - is unveiled as his successor.

It is difficult to contemplate such a piece of theatre being played out, which is why the Ranieri camp believe that, ultimately, results will determine the Italian's future with Chelsea, now that the attempt to bring matters to a conclusion before their Champions' League semi-final has failed. A residue of confidence remains that, should Chelsea retain their second place in the Premiership and reach the Champions' League final, the hand of the club's owner, Roman Abramovich, will be forced.

Should the Russian resist such pressure and, one might suggest, logic, and proceed as he had intended when he first moved in last summer, dispensing with Ranieri (with the cost of paying off his contract, which expires in 2007, of some £6 million), he will then be faced with a nightmare scenario: the new man fails on what, for him, will be alien territory, with players unfamiliar to him and, in some cases, not necessarily well-disposed to him either.

But that is perhaps moving too far ahead, given the capricious nature of professional football. For the moment, what mystifies all on the Italian's side of the argument is why, with the imminence of Chelsea's finest hour, their passage to the trophy having been cleared not just by their own elimination of Arsenal but by the sweeping away of Real Madrid and AC Milan, voices are not all singing from the same programme notes.

Maybe it is inevitable, given that the chief executive, Peter Kenyon, appears determined to review the club's coaching set-up, come what may. He has failed to entice Sven Goran Eriksson, the England coach handcuffing himself to the FA (though an indifferent performance in Euro 2004 could presumably still change all that). Conceivable alternatives include Mourinho, although he may be lured to Real Madrid if Carlos Queiroz is dismissed following elimination from the Champions' League and the increasingly likely failure to win La Liga.

It is difficult to recall, though, a club having ever approached the latter stages of Europe's premier competition with such an ambivalent attitude to the possibility of their coach's success. It is like something from the imagination of Lewis Carroll. Yet this effectively is where Chelsea find themselves as they prepare to travel to the principality of Monaco, and the first leg of their Champions' League semi-final, on Tuesday.

It was never meant to be like this, of course. There is no doubt that, like the rest of us, the Chelsea suits underestimated what Chelsea would achieve this season. There was an assumption, on the basis that not even a Wenger or Ferguson could assimilate so many disparate talents, at least not so swiftly, that they would be eliminated by the latter stages of the Champions' League, and possibly finish thirdin the Premiership. In such circumstances, Ranieri could have been dispatched with a minimum of protest.

Ranieri takes a philosophical view of it all. He regards the current season as a bonus. It is worth repeating what he said last week: "When you change the owner, you also change the coach, the manager. But I have the very good luck to remain here for one year. That is important. This goes through my mind: 'Claudio, remember! You can win every-thing at the end of the year. Then you can receive a thank you and go home'."

Ranieri has emphasised that he desires to remain, despite his position being undermined from within, and despite overtures from several clubs abroad. "Football is like work in Italy and it is more like enjoyment in Spain. I enjoyed managing there," he says. "But I spoke to Gianfranco Zola before I came to England and he told me I would enjoy England more. I am in love with English football."

There is little doubt Ranieri has won the PR battle, principally through his own gracious conduct, but also because his representative, Jon Smith, a respected negotiator, has not spun this into a war of words between coach and club. Not that some, with their own agenda, have resisted the opportunity to do so. Ken Bates, for one. The bearded blusterer and former chairman, who originally oversaw the hiring of Ranieri, has referred to the "plotting between Peter Kenyon and Pini Zahavi", the agent who had been instrumental in attempting to lure Eriksson to Stamford Bridge, and has also spoken of "treachery from within".

Bates will be the first to laud Ranieri - and not just because of reflected glory - if Chelsea claim the European prize. Yet that initial obstacle, overcoming Didier Deschamps' men, is more formidable than many forecast. True, the French club's Stade II Stadium, with its columns at either end and its location close to the millionaires' parking place of gleaming yachts, is more about style than providing an intimidating environments for visiting players. But blessed with the likes of the Spaniard Fernando Morientes, on loan from Madrid, and the wily French midfielder Ludovic Giuly, Monaco will still provide a severe examination of Ranieri's expertise. As Deschamps declares: "They [Chelsea] have a well-tuned defensive system and it comes from the manager and his Italian culture. But my team have seen that anything is possible over two games."

It is unlikely that Deschamps will be, even privately, gratified by the unrest at his former club. He is aware that disharmony exists between coach and management; not coach and players. Ranieri retains his men's unequivocal support.

Which begs the question:if Ranieri remains at Stamford Bridge, under what conditions will he work? The Italian wants to remain as head coach, which effectively means preparing the first team and having a significant input into transfer policy. To accept any less would be unthinkable for him. He would not be prepared to move upstairs as director of football.

The other dilemma for Chelsea, should they decide that continuity is preferable, is Kenyon's future. Many have suggested that his own position would be untenable. Not necessarily. Pragmatism is the dominating factor, and Ranieri would not present a "him or me" dilemma.

Whatever the outcome of a bizarre situation, we have been left in no doubt as to who is the noblest Roman of them all.

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