Wolves must leap cash chasm against Chelsea

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The Independent Football

If a week is a long time in politics, two decades represents an eternity in football. When Wolverhampton Wanderers last received Chelsea, one home player, Andy Gray, cost three times more than the entire visiting team at nearly £1.5m. Most expensive of the buys in blue was the £200,000 Colin Lee, who later managed Wolves. It will be different at Molineux today.

Wolves may have been the First Division's big spenders in recent years courtesy of Sir Jack Hayward, who hopes to beat Hurricane Isabel to fly from his Bahamas home for the match. But, at £6m, their transfer outlay since achieving Premiership status is dwarfed by Chelsea's expenditure of £110m since a whirlwind by the name of Roman Abramovich bought control during the summer.

The clubs' respective results reflect the enormous disparity in resources. Dave Jones' Wolves side, undermined by injuries to key individuals, have a solitary point to show for the first five fixtures, the club's worst start for 39 years. Claudio Ranieri's Chelsea, bringing a whole new meaning to squad rotation, are unbeaten in seven domestic and Champions' League games.

If ever a fixture proved the veracity of the Wolves manager's assertion that there are at least two divisions within the top flight, this would appear to be it. Jones, however, was in defiant mood yesterday. "Chelsea aren't invincible," he said. "They can be beaten and a lot of people will be wanting a smaller club to win, even if it sounds strange for me to be talking about us like that.

"I have to believe we can get something from the match. I've never gone into any game, as a player, coach, or manager, thinking I wouldn't. My team talk and body language would be all wrong if I did. Whoever you're playing, you've always got a chance. I didn't expect to have just one point at this stage. I thought we'd have a minimum five, but I'm not the only manager in that position."

In contrast, Ranieri is unique. Not even Manchester United, Real Madrid or the top Italian clubs have the financial clout he wields via the backing of the oil-rich Abramovich, the most high-profile Russian visitor to what Wolves fans call "the golden palace" since the epic floodlit friendlies with Moscow Spartak and Dynamo half a century ago.

Was Jones jealous of his Chelsea counterpart? "I envy the money they've got," he admitted, ironic words given Hayward's complaints down the years that other lower-division clubs would bump up the fee when the self-styled "Golden Tit" came calling. "Any manager would want to go on the kind of spree Chelsea went on.

"But I also think it's good for the Premiership. They would still have had a chance without the cash injection, but they've gone from a 'nearly-there, could-do-it' team to one hoping to do well in Europe and championship contenders. Having another serious challenger adds to what I believe is the world's best league."

While Jones has not been able to call on his first-choice goalkeeper, Matt Murray, his top scorer, Kenny Miller, or Wolves' player of the year, Joleon Lescott, Ranieri had the luxury of making seven changes from the line-up that beat Tottenham 4-2 for Tuesday's 1-0 win at Sparta Prague in the Champions' League. The Italian's range of options is a problem in itself for his opposite number.

"Claudio has amassed a great squad, and not just top-class foreigners either. But I was talking to Terry [Connor, Wolves' coach] and wondering which Chelsea it will be. Who do we tell the players to pick up? We'll just have to wait for their team-sheet because we could guess at their side and still be a million miles away."

The trick with such a large pool of players, according to Jones, is keeping everyone contented. He believes Sir Alex Ferguson has managed it at Manchester United because his successes brook no argument. Ranieri's £17m winger, Damien Duff, has already expressed frustration at being substituted in every match. Frank Lampard was unhappy to be on the bench in midweek.

Several of Wolves' seven post-promotion signings have come no closer to the action than trundling the touchline as substitutes, but not because Jones has a comparable embarrassment of riches. The Merseysider evidently wants to test the water properly before plunging the newcomers into what looks certain to be a struggle for survival.

"It's a far bigger pool than many people thought," Jones said of the élite division. "At the moment we're swimming about, trying to find our way. Some people thought we had a divine right to be in the Premiership and it would all be hunky-dory. It was never going to be like that.

"But I won't accept players feeling sorry for themselves. Nobody's going to give us anything. Right now, confidence is good and the atmosphere around the place is lively. We haven't lost any enthusiasm. We've been getting stronger, players have been learning and we're close to getting some key people back after injury."

Far too soon, then, for the "r" word to be bandied about on radio phone-ins as if it were a formality. Wolves' positive display at Old Trafford, where the champions scraped home 1-0, showed the chasm in quality and cash can be bridged. "We believed we'd get something that night," said Jones. "Although they have talent all over the pitch that can hurt you, it'll be the same against Chelsea."