As a proud son of the Italian capital, Claudio Ranieri is well aware that all roads lead to Rome. Equally, though, the Chelsea manager is not naïve enough to believe that all those roads are neat and straight. Perhaps this explains why September's Premiership manager of the month is particularly concerned about the upcoming Champions' League journey that will see him return to his birthplace in just over two weeks.
Ranieri, whose parents and brother still live in the Testaccio district of the city, faces the trickiest of double- headers against Lazio. Tricky because Chelsea suffered a shock defeat by Besiktas at Stamford Bridge earlier this month and now lie third in the table; tricky because Lazio are riding high in Serie A; tricky because another home defeat would leave Chelsea having to win at all costs in Rome; and tricky, above all, because Ranieri is a lifelong Roma fan, who is determined not to let his family down.
No wonder even the master of understatement admits that Chelsea have to win on Wednesday. "What we can't afford," he says, "is to have to go to Lazio in a fortnight needing the win. We have to do the business at home. But we are not out of this. The Champions' League is open because Lazio and Sparta drew, which means Lazio have four points and we and Besiktas have three."
Unlikely as it may have seemed when the draw was made for Group G, it is now clear that Chelsea will have to draw on all their resources to qualify for the knockout stages. In fact, should Besiktas take maximum points in their two meetings with Sparta Prague, Chelsea's fate could be out of their own hands.
Bearing in mind Roman Abramovich's wealth, elimination at the group stages would have only limited financial repercussions, yet strike a severe blow in terms of prestige. "It is not conceivable for Chelsea to go out this early," Claude Makelele concedes. "No one is expecting miracles here, but we still have to reach certain targets."
The French international, who along with the rest of the squad met the new chairman at the training ground on Thursday, adds: "We must ignore the silly pressures put on us and do what we know we can achieve. Winning the Champions' League might be a step too far this year, but reaching the latter stages is not. The key, though, is winning all our home matches."
Makelele, who won the tournament with Real Madrid in 2002 but then watched as the team were eliminated at the semi-final stage last year, knows how brutal the competition can be. "One minute you can be heading for a comfortable progression," he says, "and the next you can be out."
Makelele clicks his fingers. "It can be that quick. It's not like the League, where if you lose matches you have time to catch up. In the Champions' League, you are allowed maybe one mistake at the group stages and then that's it. We've used our spare life, so from now on we have to concentrate extra hard."
Makelele's club and international captain, Marcel Desailly, concurs. "The 2-0 defeat to Besiktas was a disappointment," he says, "particularly as we felt we threw the game away with two bad defensive mistakes. We had chances to get back in the game, but lacked bite and, quite frankly, self-belief at times.
"But the manager has been saying all along that we are not yet a real team, and that match proved he was right. We have great individual talents, but we don't yet function like a well-oiled machine."
But Desailly, who lifted the trophy with Marseille in 1993 and then Milan the following year, is not unduly worried. "It is perfectly normal that we are taking time to gel as a unit," he says. "I always warned it would take a while."
As did Ranieri. To some, the warning may have sounded like an excuse in the making, but the Italian knew the size of the task ahead. No matter that Chelsea had spent over £100m during the summer, winning every game was never going to be a realistic target. However, what disappointed most about the reverse to Besiktas was that it came at home and to a team that Chelsea should have defeated. It would seem that there are some things that no amount of money will ever change at Stamford Bridge, although if the old logic is respected then Chelsea should beat the much-fancied Lazio on Wednesday.
"I hope so," is Ranieri's response. Loyalty dictates that he wants his current club to win, but pride rules his deepest feelings. The Italian joined Roma's youth academy in 1975 and went on to become a popular player for the senior side during the Seventies and early Eighties. The family still owns a butcher's shop just off the bustling market square in Testaccio, which his brother Carlo now runs. "It is home," he recently confessed, "and one day I will go back there for good."
How soon that day will come changes on a daily basis. Ranieri is the easy-going type, but even he must wonder whether the speculation will ever die down. Just when the threat of Sven Goran Eriksson's arrival has been greatly diminished by England qualifying for Euro 2004, Ranieri's position will be back in jeopardy if Chelsea fluff their lines in the two matches against the Swede's former club. Ranieri really does not like Lazio.
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