Just before the hour mark of Chelsea's embarrassing 2-0 home defeat by Besiktas in the Champions' League, William Gallas asked the impossible of his manager. Having picked up a nasty ankle injury, the defender signalled to the bench that he needed to be replaced. He should have known better: Claudio Ranieri does not do second-half substitutions.
How can he when he has almost always used up his allocation by then? Wednesday was another example of the Italian's celebrated tinkering, as his three changes (two of which were tactical) had been made by the time the second half started. Ranieri defends his regular substitutions, arguing that they are "an integral part of the modern game", but his ever-growing band of critics - he will hope owner Roman Abramovich's coterie are not among them - say the switches highlight his failings as a tactician.
"Look," Ranieri smiles, when asked at which point the fiddling becomes self-indulgent and threatens the balance of the side, "if you make changes and they work, you are the best manager in the world - you are a genius. But when it does not go right, you are terrible. I understand that people question my judgement, but this is the way I do things and, as long as I am manager of Chelsea, I will continue this way." Unless a certain ambitious billionaire decides otherwise, of course.
So how will Ranieri be labelled come four o'clock this afternoon, after his team have played Middlesbrough? "I do not know," the Italian admits, "but I do expect a good reaction from my players. We have a good spirit and I'm sure we'll bounce back."
One wonders whether Wednesday's woes have not made him more wary of chopping and changing. Ranieri smiles. Just a little? "No," he says. "I always look at how my players are performing during training and then pick the starting XI accordingly. The defeat against Besiktas will not change my strategy."
Once a tinkerman, always a tinkerman seems to be Ranieri's motto, but he should take note of Gallas's view of Wednesday's bizarre touch-line goings on. "I twisted my ankle really badly following a nasty tackle," the Frenchman recalls, "and quickly came to the conclusion that I could no longer continue. I looked up to tell the boss I wanted to come off, but then suddenly realised that the three subs had already taken their place. It struck me we would now have to go on with 10 men."
Or so Gallas thought, until his manager asked him to battle on. "I was preparing to go to the bench when he told me to get back on the pitch," says Gallas, who could clearly be seen discussing the matter at length with Ranieri. "He also told me that if I really didn't feel I could do anything constructive, then I should just stay up front and goal-hang. I guess you never know what might happen. In the event, I just sat up there, but, to be honest, wasn't able to assist the lads. I couldn't run or get involved, and only touched the ball two or three times."
If Gallas is angry with his manager, he is not showing it. Ask him whether he feels Ranieri's demand placed his career in any danger, and the Frenchman simply shrugs his shoulders. "I seriously did not think about the physical implications at the time," he says. "I did not for one moment worry that I might take another knock to my ankle [he did not]. As a footballer, you don't function that way. All I was concerned with was the fact that we were 2-0 down and still had enough time to get back into the game."
The gamble failed. "We did not play well," Gallas admits, "and we conceded two silly goals, but that does not mean that we should question our entire raison d'être. It's true we would have preferred to lose a Premiership game rather than one in Europe at this stage, but it is not the end of the world. We are still a very good team."
Such loyalty will be music to Ranieri's ears, although it does not explain why the Italian was in such a tight spot in the first place. Indeed, the reason he could not bring Gallas off owed little to misfortune and much to bad planning. Had he not taken the strange decision to play with three at the back rather than his usual four and had he not removed Hernan Crespo and Adrian Mutu at half-time, it is unlikely Gallas's injury would have caused such a dilemma.
Ranieri, predictably, disagrees with that point of view. "My decision to play three in defence against Besiktas was not wrong," he insists. "If you look at their previous game at home to Lazio, they played very well and dominated most of the match. Lazio [whom Chelsea face next in the Champions' League home and away] scored their goals from set plays in break-away situations. Lazio won in Turkey the same way Besiktas won at Stamford Bridge. This happens at home sometimes."
Sven Goran Eriksson will be hoping that Ranieri's assessment that the away side are at an advantage in big games is correct, when England travel to Istanbul for Saturday's Euro 2004 qualifier. "The Turkish league is a good league," Ranieri says, "and people should be under no illusions that England's task will be very demanding over there. The Turks pass and move very well, so beware."
He also feels that the whole of England will be a better place once the match is out of the way. "My English boys and everyone in the country are obsessed with this game," he says. "It will be good when England have been there and got the result they need. I think they'll do it."
While Ranieri's good wishes to the national team are genuine, he is also under no illusion that the outcome of the match may go a long way towards deciding his, as well as Eriksson's, future. Victory or a draw in Turkey would almost certainly see the Swede remain in charge until the conclusion of the European Championship finals next summer. Defeat, though, could lead to resignation and a swift return to club management, with... Chelsea and his new friend Roman.Reuse content