Being a good old-fashioned Italian football man, Claudio Ranieri is not a natural gambler. Taking risks has not been part of his education and has therefore never featured prominently in his management approach. But today is different.
Today, both Chelsea and their opponents at Stamford Bridge, are playing for their season. Oh, and the small matter of £20m. “For Liverpool and for us,” he says, “this is the big final. The winner gets into the Champions’ League and the loser stays in the Uefa Cup. It all or nothing, red or black, and I’m looking forward to it.”
“Banco” for Chelsea would mean a win or a draw. For Liverpool, the only option is the three points. Perhaps this explains why Ranieri is surprisingly relaxed ahead of the big-money game. He knows that Liverpool’s recent record at Stamford Bridge is poor (the Reds have not won there since the 1989-90 season). He knows, too, that Liverpool will have to come out and play, something which Gérard Houllier’s team are not renowned for.
“I think all the problems are for Liverpool,” he suggests. “They must come on to us and attack, and they are the ones who have spent a lot of money in the last 18 months. They need the Champions’ League more than we do, but we want it more than anyone.”
Ranieri says that he never thinks about the financial repercussions of a match, but he must know that the expected windfall of £20m makes Champions’ League qualification a must. “Look,” he insists, “whatever happens, we will have improved on our position from last season. My first ambition was to finish above sixth, but now that we are this close, I want the fourth place. If we can do that, it will be a good achievement.”
Good, but by no means great for a club that has spent more money than the Italian would care to remember. In his two and a half years as manager, his chairman Ken Bates has signed cheques totalling more than £30m. Ranieri’s three biggest signings, Frank Lampard, William Gallas and Emmanuel Petit cost £11m, £6.5m and £7m respectively.
Reaching the promised land that is the Champions’ League is therefore of great importance, not least to keep the squad together. The club’s key players would find leaving SW6 that much easier if Chelsea were, yet again, playing second fiddle in the Uefa Cup.
“I’d like to keep this group,” Ranieri admits, “and I know that much of this depends on us playing against the best. We are improving all the time, but these young players now need to take on the cream of Europe.” One dare not mention it, but in order to qualify for the main European event Chelsea will have to play a two-legged match against an obscure European team. No problem, one might have thought, except that the Blues have gone out of the Uefa Cup to virtual unknowns (St Gallen, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Vikings) in the last three years.
Having not been out of the top four since Christmas, Chelsea would kick themselves if they slipped in the final sprint. Ranieri may be reluctant to admit it, but his team should have wrapped up Champions’ League qualification a long time ago. Whether the manager is right that the late draw conceded to Fulham was more damaging than the defeats by Aston Villa and West Ham in the last month is a moot point. All that matters is that Chelsea have allowed a resurgent Liverpool to sneak up on them.
In an unusual move for someone not often associated with humility, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink has suggested that this slump is down to his inability to score 20 goals in a campaign for the first time in seven years. “The whole team has been more consistent and the goals have come from everywhere,” says the man who has found the net 15 times in all competitions this season, “but just imagine if Eidur [Gudjohnsen, his striking partner] and I had a good year. I think a lot more could have been achieved a lot quicker.”
Cool as ever, Ranieri dismissed Hasselbaink’s mea culpa, insisting that his team worked on the basis of collective responsibility. Few are better at giggling their way through a tough press conference, and one imagines that the Italian’s calmness must rub off on the players. “You must not think that I am not serious,” he says. “Me and my players are very focused on this game. But we are relaxed because we know what we have to do. I feel pressure only because I put it on my shoulders, not because of anything that the media might write.”
So which of these high-spending under-achievers deserves the all-important fourth place? Predictably, both managers are backing their clubs. “We deserve it more because we’ve been up there all season,” was Ranieri’s view. “We have been very consistent, so we should not lose out on the last day.” Houllier, not surprisingly, has a different opinion. “I think we deserve it more than any other team,” the Frenchman insists. “There are two reasons for this: first, we have had to play 12 European games and we’ve also had the good campaign in the Worthington Cup; and secondly, there have been times when we have had to fight back from the depths of despair when we played well and were unlucky. No team in the Premiership will have earned a place in the Champions’ League more than us. I mean it.”
The trouble is, so does Ranieri.