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50-50: Liverpool vs. Real Madrid

Champions League about an hour ago
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May 8, 2004

Arriverderci, Claudio?

Man Utd 1-1 Chelsea

As sure as the ruthless but lavish billionaire Roman Abramovich is preparing for another trolley-dash through Europe's leading dressing rooms this summer, so it's certain a P45 will soon land with a thump on Claudio Ranieri's desk.

If speculation is to be believed - and on this occasion it seems to carry much weight - then the Italian is almost certainly to be replaced by Porto coach Jose Mourinho.

There's no doubt the stock of the Portuguese coach has risen from the collapse of Milan and Madrid and, in no small part, to a linesman by the name of Gennady Krasyuk.

Who? You may ask.

But, were it not for a mistake from the second most famous Russian linesman in English football - who has this week been removed from the list of Euro 2004 officials - Manchester United would have probably knocked Porto out of the Champions League in March and spared us the 50 yard gallop of Mourinho at Old Trafford.

From that moment more than any other, he came into the mind's eye of European football's wealthiest employers and would-be suitors, so nearing the end for the decent, dignified 'tinkerman'.

'I believe I can stay here', was Ranieri's refreshing answer when asked about his future after his club sealed the second spot at Old Trafford.

Everyone loved to believe him, but no-one did.

For a side he's guided to Premiership runners-up and the Champions League semi-finals, Ranieri's pending dismissal seems rough justice.

The club has progressed this season, both on and off the field, although it must be said the foundations were already in place before Abramovich lavished £120 million on his new executive toy.

Ultimately though, Ranieri is not the winning coach the money-no-object revolution of Abramovich demands.

Abramovich may 'know nothing about football' - unless Ranieri has been misquoted - but he does know Chelsea will never get a better chance to win Europe's premier competition.

And such is the extent of the major and brutal change about to continue apace in West London, not even the club's highest league finish since 1955, when they were champions, and the Italian's highest ever career league placing, were a guarantee to save his job.

They say it's better to be a lucky manager than a good one and no good fortune appears to have befallen him under the eyes of Abramovich and new chief executive, Peter Kenyon.

However, his Chelsea side received some after 18 minutes at Old Trafford.

From a corner which shouldn't have been awarded, the ball made its way to the often criticised Jesper Gronkjaer who struck a superb shot into the roof of the net.

Claudio Ranieri: Seems blissfully unaware of his imminent removal.
Claudio Ranieri: Seems blissfully unaware of his imminent removal.

Three days after his wonder strike - intentional or not - against Monaco, the Dane had his 1st Premiership goal of the campaign.

The corner may have been fortuitously awarded, but there was nothing fortuitous about this result though as Chelsea gained a thoroughly deserved draw to finish above their opponents who saw Carlo Cudicini tip away a Ruud van Nistelrooy penalty in the first half before the Dutchman capitalised on the keeper's error and coolly equalised 14 minutes from time.

Even when reduced to 10 men following the dismissal of promising young German centre-back Robert Huth, moments before van Nistelrooy's leveller, Chelsea's efforts typified that of their boss - unflagging.

His players want him to stay, so do most Chelsea fans but, for what it's worth, the Italian will soon depart, probably be compensated and will soon gain another high-profile job.

Whoever succeeds him, Rennes goalkeeper Petr Cech and PSV starlet Arjen Robben are already on their way, Roma's Walter Samuel is also being touted for a move to West London, while a number of players could follow Mourinho.

A quick look at the executive box at Old Trafford told much of the tale of this intriguing plot and sub-plot which is near its long end.

Within a row of each other sat Abramovich, self-confessed United die-hard Kenyon - so committed he took the money and headed south - and Sven Goran Eriksson, the man regularly tipped to succeed Ranieri before the season even began.

And to add to the interest, there sat the cheeky grinned former Chelsea favourite and Millwall manager Dennis Wise, taking a closer look at United ahead of the FA Cup final.

As Ranieri and his players received a warm send-off from home fans at the full-time whistle - Eidjur Gudjohnsen even giving his shirt to a young Stretford Ender - Sir Alex Ferguson took to the microphone, as is customary for United's final home league match, to thank supporters for the unwavering support.

'See you in Cardiff', was the message as his side gear up for the season's showpiece.

Ensuring the midfielder didn't receive a ban which would keep him out of the final, Sir Alex had earlier took off Paul Scholes - already cautioned and having received a warning - after little more than half an hour.

The decision said much and one suspects United would rather finish third and win the FA Cup than finish second and empty-handed.

For all their strides, just maybe, Chelsea's lack of silverware has cost him his job. Arriverderci Claudio!

Men of the match: Mikael Silvestre and John Terry led by example at the back with a number of important interceptions and clearances, Silvestre even moving forward to produce the cross which led to the equaliser.

Moment of the match: In the opening minutes, a sublime piece of skill from the young talent that is Cristiano Ronaldo which bamboozled three Chelsea defenders and a captive audience.

Atmosphere: After a fairly quiet opening, both sets of fans came to life. United's support were in end-of-season party mood ahead of Cardiff, while Chelsea followers delighted they could finish above their opponents.

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