James Lawton: Ranieri's night turns from dream to nightmare

Sunday 06 October 2013 13:57

He is a man of unlimited charm but also, perhaps, non-negotiable vulnerability. He can inspire players to be lions in his cause, but he can also turn them into a herd of sheep. That, barring some extraordinary resurrection at Stamford Bridge, may well be the sad, cruel Chelsea epitaph of Claudio Ranieri, the man who lost his way on the touchline once too often.

This certainly was the performance not of a cool general under pressure but the self-christened Tinkerman.

He had two weeks to pick the team to stifle the attacking instincts of Monaco, the side who had so stunningly ejected Real Madrid from the Champions' League ­ and just a few minutes to turn it into dust. It was, his worst critics, who we know fatally include Roman Abromovich, the man who had so proudly moored his super vessel in the glittering harbour and who signs Ranieri's pay cheques, will caustically note, more than enough.

Ranieri, who to the mystification of many kept faith with the often desperately unproductive Jesper Gronkjaer right up to the moment his lack of economy became a matter of grim mirth in the Stade Louis ll, made three changes after Chelsea, who were given superb leadership by the ever improving young Englishman Frank Lampard, had taken a hold on the game at 1-1.

Gronkjaer, Scott Parker and Mario Melchiot gave way to Juan Sebastian Veron, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Robert Huth. As it turned out Veron and Gronkjaer were like for like, Huth was an improvement on Melchiot ­ but then on this form so would have been a casually conscripted ball boy ­ and Hasselbaink might just have been seen, in a corner of Ranieri's mind, that is, as a bold move to exploit the advantage that came when Claude Makelele so nauseatingly conned the Swiss referee Urs Meier into dismissing Monaco's Andreas Zikos.

But what we ­ and Abramovich with an ever more thunderous brow ­ saw was not a stiffening of the Chelsea effort but a melt-down.

A few yards away down the touchline Didier Deschamps, who knows about winning World and European Cups as a player, had rather more success.

His injection of Shabani Nonda brought a crushing third goal after Fernando Morientes, a waspish dangerman throughout, had raced away to score a brilliant goal that brought an almost instant, shocking draining of Chelsea confidence.

You could have wept for the sudden implosion of Ranieri's world, one that had been re-created so emotionally with the quarter-final victory at Highbury, but first there had to be tears of rage from all those who have not yet accepted the dispiriting proposition that all honour and decency has fled football at its most competitive levels.

The source of the outrage was the sickening stunt of Makelele, who ironically before the Zikos incident had at last looked recognisable as the brilliant midfield destroyer who made such a huge contribution to Real Madrid's last European Cup triumph two years ago. Makelele had been covering the ground, making his tackles, with that old professional cunning. But then he lapsed into a moment of undiluted fraud. He sprawled to the ground several strides away from the point where Zikos had pushed him away with the lightest of hands.

Zikos's dismissal gave Chelsea the most generous of advantages and with Lampard showing tremendous appetite for the challenge of pushing his team to within touching distance of a place in the final against either Deportivo or Porto, Ranieri was increasingly looking less like a victim of Russian persecution than the beneficiary of extremely benign fate. This was an impression underlined by increasingly hardening reports that Real Madrid saw him as the man to replace the underwhelming Carlos Queiroz.

It was a story-line as sweet as the perfume of bougainville for the son of the Roman butcher, but on the Cote D'Azur dreams can die as quickly as anywhere else ­ and most painfully in the casino up the hill from this stadium. Certainly the roulette wheel began to whirl horribly for Ranieri. One moment he was the man who had beaten fate. The next he was, like so many big losers, looking into the mirror. What did he see? Cruelly, it was surely that old image of the Tinkerman.

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