When this pairing for the Champions League second round was drawn out on UEFA’s glamorously decorated stage in Nyon in December, all of the talk was of Claudio Ranieri’s return to Stamford Bridge, the ground where the Roman occupied the home dugout for four years between 2000 and 2004 – now though, the attention is on the Londoners’ latest boss.
If the news of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s sacking created ripples of shock throughout the footballing world, then the identity of his replacement did not. Having been continually linked with the Chelsea job ever since Roman Abramovich’s arrival, it came as no surprise when Guus Hiddink decided to combine his role as Russia boss with the task of steering the Blues back on to a track that – according to the club’s board at least – Scolari had veered too far off.
Dutchman Hiddink will face a Juventus side in indifferent form. The 2-0 win at Palermo at the weekend came after just one win in their last four games and the title now looks surely beyond them. The Bianconeri look to be short on confidence, and it will need all of Ranieri’s managerial skills to get a positive result to take back to Turin.
At the same time, Chelsea’s home no longer seems intimidating. Liverpool ended an astonishing 86-game unbeaten league record there in October with a 1-0 win, Arsenal were successful in November, while lower league lesser lights such as Burnley and Southend United achieved 1-1 draws there in domestic cup ties – Burnley even winning on penalties, and if these points about both teams seem contradictory, it’s because the game is full of questions – How will Ranieri play it at his former home? Will Hiddink’s Chelsea rediscover the same mental toughness achieved under Jose Mourinho? Who will win the battle between Amauri and John Terry? Olof Mellberg and Nicolas Anelka?
The main thing that Hiddink will need restore to his Chelsea troops is confidence, particularly in defence, although the weekend win at Premier League surprise package Aston Villa suggests that the old miserly back-line may be returning. Captain Terry, a slip on a piece of Moscow turf away from being a Champion of Europe last May, will be more determined than most to lift the trophy in Rome this time around, especially as Chelsea have never won it.
Recent damaging league defeats at both Manchester United and Liverpool have left their hopes of winning a third Premier League title in five years in tatters. Witness the goals conceded in those games – three from crosses at Old Trafford, two in the final two minutes to a criminally unattended Fernando Torres at Anfield – and you see Chelsea’s problem. It is doubtful that any of those strikes would have been conceded under Mourinho.
Ah yes, the Special One. Even as he prepares to face his own English challenge in Manchester United, the Portuguese’s shadow looms large over this game; as a team who would still no doubt like him to be in charge, play a side whose manager was forced out because of him.
The pre-Abramovich Chelsea is often glossed over; written off as merely an also-ran in the Premier League, while Ranieri has even been airbrushed out of their history, visit the ‘notable managers’ section of the club’s Wikipedia page for proof. Chairman Ken Bates appointed the ex-Cagliari, Napoli and Fiorentina Tactician in September 2000. Having guided Valencia towards the upper echelons of the Spanish league, the Italian took a while to get to grips with the language barrier in England, although he did reach the FA Cup Final in his first season. Ranieri’s league finishes of fifth, sixth, sixth and fourth were an improvement for the early 21st Century Chelsea, but everything changed when a Jesper Gronkjaer goal gave the cash-strapped Blues a 2-1 win over Liverpool on the final day of 2002/03 season – pipping the Anfield club to Champions League qualification in the process.
Abramovich, sensing the riches the competition could bring, swooped to buy the club from Bates. In the following months the likes of Hernan Crespo, Adrian Mutu, Juan Sebastian Veron, Joe Cole, Damien Duff and Claude Makelele were shipped in for huge amounts of money – the kind of which had never before been seen in the Premier League. Expectations sky-rocketed, and Ranieri now simply had to win a trophy.
The formerly genial and gracious boss became apprehensive and anxious, and his decisions were questioned weekly. He was widely derided in the media when his team selection went horribly awry in a Champions League semi-final defeat to a Fernando Morientes-inspired Monaco, and despite finishing second in the league – Chelsea’s highest position for nearly fifty years – Ranieri with Champions League-winner Mourinho waiting in the wings.
And so it will surely be with a sense of ‘what might have been’ that Ranieri will return on Wednesday night, and he won’t be the only one determined to succeed. Midfielder Tiago was a Mourinho signing in 2004, but left Chelsea after just a year, upset at a lack of chances to impress, while Momo Sissoko played on winning Liverpool sides against Chelsea at a time when the battles between the two became almost biblical. The duo will have a tough task if selected, as on paper Chelsea possess one of the best midfields in the world, and if Ranieri decides to stifle the home side’s creativity, much as Roma did in the group stages, then he could well be the one left smiling ahead of the clubs’ second encounter in a fortnight’s time.