By Trevor Haylett in London
Despite attempts to divert him towards a possible showdown with S.S. Lazio for the leadership of UEFA Champions League Group G, the Chelsea FC manager Claudio Ranieri remained focused only on their Matchday 2 game with Besiktas JK.
Praise for Besiktas
Ranieri went to great lengths to convince his audience at the pre-match press conference that the Turkish champions will be a tough nut to crack. "I know Besiktas are a very good team," Ranieri said. "I watched them last Sunday in Istanbul when they won 5-0 [against Trabzonspor]. They played very well and have the personality and philosophy of champions. At this moment I do not think about Lazio - I think about Chelsea and Besiktas."
Besiktas lost at home to Lazio on Matchday 1 while Chelsea were winning at AC Sparta Praha. None the less, Ranieri has respect for the visitors. "This team [Besiktas] lost only one match last season," he said. "This season they have lost only one match - to Lazio - and in that game [Angelo] Peruzzi, the Lazio goalkeeper, was the best player on the pitch."
Nevertheless, with both the Italian and English sides beginning the campaign with away victories, Chelsea and Lazio have the chance to take a strong hold on the qualifying places on Matchday 2. For Chelsea supporters a large part of the fascination before games is attempting to predict which eleven will start from Ranieri's stellar squad.
'Players are like sons'
However, the manager denies that team selection is the most difficult aspect of his job. "The most important thing is to understand my players and try to help them when they don't play," Ranieri said. "This is important because although they are strong mentally, when they are not in the team they need my support.
As a manager I am very happy because I can choose. As a man, as a father really because these players are like sons to me, it's not easy but I prefer to have the choice."
Despite a start to the season which has seen his unbeaten team win eight of their nine competitive games he is still striving for improvement, particularly in the link between the new guard and the players who have been at the club some time. He said: "Claude Makelele and Hernán Crespo have trained with us just ten times. We need to know, for instance, how Crespo wants the ball, in which direction he wants it. We don't know this and the same goes for [Adrian] Mutu and [Glen] Johnson and [Wayne] Bridge."
Besiktas coach Mircea Lucescu, who like Ranieri can select from a fully-fit squad, said it was important his team took on the role of "protagonists". He said Besiktas needed to win and they were hoping for better fortune than they met against Lazio, adding: "
We are playing a big team and big players but I trust my players and my team and I hope we will be at a good level."
He favours Lazio as the likely winners of the group "because they have not changed their team and because they do not have financial problems any more". It will be difficult for Chelsea to win the competition, Lucuescu believes, "because they have to give opportunities to the players they have bought and they have to make a lot of changes. As time passes and with more matches they will be better," he said. "The future is for them but I hope it starts after our match."
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