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Juan foot in the grave


By STEVEN HOWARD

CLAUDIO RANIERI learned a painful and obvious lesson here last night.

That if you take too many risks in the gambling city of Monte Carlo, you are likely to end up potless.

In this case, the pot just happens to be the greatest prize of all — the Champions League.

Some extraordinary decisions by the Tinkerman cost Chelsea not only the match but as good as rubber-stamped the Italian’s exit from Stamford Bridge.

Yes, he still has the chance to orchestrate a Chelsea comeback in the second leg of this semi-final in two weeks but I doubt it will materialise.

For Monaco, conquerors of favourites Real Madrid and who annihilated Deportivo La Coruna 8-3 in the group stage, are too good to let this one slip through their fingers now.

Ranieri had said before the match that even if Chelsea won the tournament he would still get the sack. That the “Sword of Abramovich was already embedded in me”.

Last night Ranieri, like so many of his illustrious Roman forbears, fell on his own sword. In short, the Tinkerman would appear to have done his best to tinker himself out of a job.

Yet for 45 minutes at the Stade Louis II, everything seemed to be going well enough for him and his players.

The only question mark seemed to have been the selection of right-back Mario Melchiot, a player who has hit a particularly poor vein of form right now.

In the absence of William Gallas — who did such an outstanding job on Thierry Henry at Stamford Bridge in the quarter-final — Ranieri felt compelled to stick with Melchiot, despite compelling evidence to the contrary.

That initial mistake was compounded in the 17th minute when the Dutchman was booked for a clumsy and unnecessary challenge on Jerome Rothen.

The Monaco winger took the free-kick himself and Croatian hitman Dado Prso did the rest with his head.

An animated Ranieri could be seen striding up and down the touchline, frantically waving his arms in the air.

Salvation, though, was at hand in the form of the Monaco defence who, in attempting to play the offside game, let Hernan Crespo grab the equaliser five minutes later.

All-square at half-time, the 1,400 Chelsea fans inside the tiny, Lego-style stadium could have been excused for thinking Ranieri might be content to see out the final 45 minutes and then cash in his chips.

Instead, the gambling Tinkerman went back to the tables and blew the lot.

Seemingly incapable of letting the game continue on its own course towards a natural conclusion, Ranieri replaced Jesper Gronkjaer with Juan Veron. If this wasn’t a punt, then I don’t know what is.

Veron has had little more than one half of first-team action in five months. Not only that, but there are indications the Argentinian — as overrated as he is overpaid — is very much on a downward spiral.

Yet Ranieri, in his wisdom, decided here was the man who held Chelsea’s Champions League future in his hands.

It was a spectacular failure. Apart from one ball forward to Eidur Gudjohnsen, Veron made no significant contribution whatsoever.

Despite the fact Monaco were reduced to 10 men after some outrageous play-acting by Claude Makelele had got Andreas Zikos sent off, Ranieri could still not come up with a cohesive and cogent strategy. In fact, it got even worse.

Even though Crespo and Gudjohnsen were performing well enough up front, the Chelsea coach threw on Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.

When Frank Lampard and Makelele saw their manager’s latest brainwave, they looked at each other in blank astonishment with arms spread wide. Afterwards Ranieri said: “I wanted to win the game — instead I lost the plot.”

Well, at least he admitted it.

To accommodate Hasselbaink, he took off Melchiot and moved midfielder Scott Parker to full-back.

That lasted all of six minutes — the time it took for the former Charlton player’s vulnerability to Ludovic Giuly’s pace to be exposed.

Then the wheels totally came off as Parker was replaced by Robert Huth, a man who has played the majority of his career at centre-half.

Meanwhile, Crespo appeared to have switched to some sort of midfield role.

Needless to say, great holes suddenly started appearing in a defence that had conceded just one away goal in their preceding six ties — all of them won.

Punishment was severe and instant. Fernando Morientes rifled home in the 78th minute and substitute Shabani Nando added a third when John Terry was left exposed at the back.

The Chelsea fans, who half an hour earlier, had been regaling all and sundry with chants of ‘Are You Watching Arsenal?’ could not believe what had unfurled in front of them.

Now they will require the sort of miracle that took place at the Nou Camp in 2000 when Barcelona, trailing Chelsea 3-1 from the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final, forced the match into extra-time before finishing off Gianluca Vialli’s team with two more goals.

Chelsea’s only hope is that Gallas and Damien Duff recover in time to take their place at Stamford Bridge.

And that Ranieri finally comes up with a tactical plan and formation he does not feel compelled to mess about with.

That means TWO miracles.

From where I’m sitting at the moment — in an empty Stade Louis II stadium just up the road from the casino — the man who should have cashed in his chips has probably had them.

Poor old Claudio seems to have done chief executive Peter Kenyon’s hatchet job for him.
 
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