It has long been wondered, and many have suspected it to be true, but Claudio Ranieri confirmed it yesterday. When the Italian was in charge of Chelsea, there were briefings given against him in the spring of 2004, saying that he would be sacked by the owner Roman Abramovich, come what may, in the summer of that year. Did that include even if he won the Champions League?
Ranieri, returning yesterday to Stamford Bridge for the first time since he left south-west London, ended all the doubting, once and for all, when he said: "Even if we had won [the Champions League], I knew that my days were numbered but I actually liked that. I never gave up, and that is part and parcel of my character."
Jose Mourinho, then the manager of Porto, was the man who had been earmarked as Ranieri's successor, and who won the Champions League in May 2004 with the Portuguese club. It has always been held against Ranieri that he had the chance to take Chelsea to the final that year – which would have been a fascinating one against Porto – only to make tactical mistakes in the first leg of the semi-final against Monaco.
For the 57-year-old, the key was the second leg at Stamford Bridge. Monaco scored a goal just before half-time that let the French club back into the tie, and ultimately into the final. "We were 2-0 up [at Stamford Bridge] and they scored a handball goal. I guess I can say that had we gone in 2-0 up [at half-time], we would have gone into the final. But that's history. We can't change that now."
Ranieri is enjoying success at the Old Lady of Turin, having been in charge since 2007 and they are now second in Serie A, albeit nine points behind leaders Internazionale. He guided them to Champions League qualification last summer, they beat Real Madrid home and away in the group stage, and play the first leg of this last-16 tie tonight, for which Ranieri (right) feels Chelsea are favourites.
He still follows the Premier League and his near four years in charge of the Blues – he arrived in September 2000 – lend his words extra weight, and he had things to say that may have stung the ears of Abramovich or his fellow club owners. Ranieri said: "I agree with Sir Alex Ferguson when he says football is changing here in England. In the past, one would have had time to build a team, bring in young players, get them experience. But in quite a lot of clubs now, that's no longer possible. "I think it's fair to say it's becoming here in England a bit like in Italy. Everyone wants to win, but there can only be one winner. We've seen new owners come in – from the US, Arabs, and from Russia – and put their money in and they want an instant return.
"But football isn't like that. You need time for players to bed in, to make their mark and for a manager to make your impact felt.
"Money helps to buy players, but it's not all about money. Money isn't what makes you win, which is probably just as well."
Ranieri has kept his house in London and says he is always given a warm welcome whenever Chelsea fans bump into him. Even the last time he saw Abramovich, the Russian told him that, "your home will always be here."
Frank Lampard is another who wants to extend that warmth tonight. Signed by Ranieri in 2001, for £11m, from West Ham, he wants everyone to acknowledge the former Valencia manager's part in turning Chelsea into one of England's top sides. Lampard said: "He opened my eyes to things. He helped me develop from a West Ham player who maybe hadn't seen the real world in footballing terms.
"He brought a lot of important players to the team. He signed good players even before the Abramovich era [started in 2003].
"A lot of things have happened at this club, and Ranieri is part of that history. From taking Chelsea from a side who finished in the top six to one of the top four. He should take credit for what he did in his time here."
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