Chelsea hits rock bottom


AS a fabulously rich entrepreneur, Roman Abramovich must be well acquainted with the Law of Diminishing Returns. He may even have cognisance of the old English saying, money isn't everything. Chelsea's truly kept performance of late, at home to Besiktas of Turkey, in the European Champions Cup, made both expressions all too relevant. As one who was there, I could only marvel at the suicidal ineptitude of the Chelsea manager, himself a Roman, Claudio Ranieri, who virtually presented the game to his far wilier counterpart, Mirzes Lucescu, once captain and manager of Rumania and my old friends, on a plate.

Chelsea's coach Claudio Ranieri looks dejected, after Besiktas had scored its second goal against his team in the Champions League at Stamford Bridge Stadium in London. Ranieri's endless chopping and changing method has proved no good for the team. -- Pic. AFP-

Chelsea's problem is that given so many vastly expensive stars to command — Damien Duff, Adrian Mutu, Juan Sebastian Veron, Geremi, Claude Makelele, Hernan Crespo, Wayne Bridge — Ranieri is only too able now to indulge his penchant for compulsive chopping and changing, for which a euphemism is Rotation. On this occasion, he rotated his team to disaster.

In the first place, he suddenly, and for the first time this season, decided to use a 3-5-2 rather than a 4-4-2 formation. Why, he was asked at the post game Press Conference, to which the answer was that he had seen Besiktas play: in fact no answer at all. The only possible corollary was that having seen them play, he had perversely drawn the radically wrong conclusions. For what he put out in the first half against the Turks was a porous formation, which gave them all the space they wanted. Thus the talented Geremi, essentially an attacking right flanker, was used as right wing back with no clear idea of how to defend. Which duly led to the first Besiktas goal.

Failing to pick up his man on a free kick, he enabled Besiktas, with two passes, to work the ball into the penalty area where they scored. The second goal was a monumental fiasco. Marcel Desailly slipped, obliging Carlo Cudicinu to come charging out of his goal to intercept the ball. In the event he missed it completely, leaving Sergen Yalcin, who had already scored the first goal, via a deflection off John Terry, to walk the ball into the empty net.

But even when, in the first half, Masi Ilhan, that clever little centre-forward, so foolishly got himself sent off, thus reducing his team to 10 men for most of the game, Chelsea still could not exploit their advantage. Late in the second half, their own defender, William Gallas, he too played out of position, had to go off, injured. He should surely have stayed off, but though he was limping heavily, Ranieri brought him back again with orders to hobble about at centre forward. It did Chelsea no good and it probably did Gallas a lot of harm.

Besiktas' Sergen Yalcin (left) scores his team's first goal, via a deflection off John Terry (right), in the Champions League first stage Group `G' match at Stamford Bridge. In fact, Yalcin's two goals steered his team to victory. -- Pic. REUTERS-

At half-time, Ranieri took off his two hugely expensive strikers, Adrian Mutu and Hernan Crespo, putting on Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink as a loan striker, the player largely expected to be sold even before the season started. Yet there he continues to be, as does the Icelandic international striker Fiddur Gudjohnsen who missed the Besiktas game, but returned to score against Middlesbrough on the Sunday.

Damien Duff also came on at half-time, on the left wing, where he gave Chelsea skill, speed and hope. In the recent past he had already complained about constantly appearing as substitute, and he had a strong case, having cost the club no less than �17 million. Even after he had set up both goals at Boro, he declared that the team still lacked rhythm. But how could they ever acquire it with Ranieri endlessly chopping and changing?

The wonder of it was that, against Besiktas Ranieri should keep Veron on the field for the whole of the match and not even give a kick to the talented Londoner and playmaker, Joe Cole. The player who, in his folly, Roman has actually wanted to lend to Spartak Moscow! Veron was just as ineffectual and anonymous in the second half as he had been in the first. As one who has greatly admired him in the past, I find it dispiriting to see him play so poorly, and maddening to see him preferred to a player of the quality of Joe Cole.

In parenthesis, it was also disappointing to see Ilhan sent off in the way he was. It may have, indeed it was, been his own fault, yet to me it emphasised a paradox in the rules which has been with us since 1968 and should ideally have been long ago removed. I am talking about the convention of red and yellow cards. They were first used in the Olympic football tournament of 1968 in Mexico, much of which I attended. I didn't like them then and I do not like them now. As we all know, two yellows, two cautions, make a red, which means expulsion and this is what happened to Ilhan.

True his behaviour was childish and self destructive to a degree. Twice in the first half, as the referee had whistled to stop the game, he ran on with the ball. That he should do so once and get a yellow card was foolish but perhaps forgivable. That he should do it again, running on to put the ball in the net when the whistle had blown to put him offside, passed credulity. So the Spanish referee had no option, under the present rules, to show him another yellow card, followed by a red, which meant he was out of the game.

His own stupid fault, you may well say, and I could not disagree. Yet the fault surely lies also in the daft rigidity of the system. Two yellows make a red; end of story. But what this all too often means that a couple of trivial offences lead to a player being sent off, whereas before the system of cards was introduced, you got sent off only for a really serious foul. Which only too often nowadays will be punished, if at all, by a single yellow card, enabling the culprit to play off, perhaps at the expense of a player he has fouled, injured and put out of the game.

Mircea Lucescu was kind to Chelsea and Ranieri after the game, emphasising that it always takes time for a new group of players, however expensive and famous, to get to know each other and form a coherent whole. But what chance have they got to bed down when, in game after game, their team is radically changed, in the name of that dubious practice, Rotation?

It wasn't, against Besiktas (or against Sparta in the previous game come to that) even as if Ranieri was pursuing a policy of horses for courses, the appropriate players to oppose the particular opposition. Against Besiktas, the initial line up could hardly have been less appropriate nor did the half- time changes do anything much — bar the arrival of Duff and the change to a back four, to put things right. Would Roman's patience last? You may know by now.