By Trevor Haylett in London
There cannot be many managers who have prepared for a UEFA Champions League quarter-final with intense rumour and speculation surrounding his future. But that is the situation Claudio Ranieri found himself in on the eve of Chelsea FC's first-leg tie against Arsenal FC.
Need to focus
It is not a new scenario for Ranieri and even though the reports suggesting he will leave Stamford Bridge in the summer have intensified in recent days, he continues to impress on his players the need to focus only on Chelsea and their own individual performances - and not worry about him.
"The players are my blood and my strength and their support is fantastic," said the Italian. "But I have said to them it is not important what happens to Claudio Ranieri; it is only important what happens to Chelsea. They must focus on Chelsea and themselves."
Ranieri recognises the difficulty his men face. Arsenal have proved superior to every club in England this season but it is Chelsea who have suffered most of all: losing 2-1 in two Premiership encounters and by the same score in the FA Cup. In fact, not once in 16 meetings, dating back to 31 January 1999, have Chelsea come out on top.
'Building the foundations'
Arsenal are playing very, very well and they deserve to stay at the top of the league," Ranieri said. "My squad is young but also experienced and the players will put all their soul into this match. I have said all along that we are building the foundations here. I am a man who works with my feet on the ground and I continue to think we must build and build and build."
Marco Ambrosio will continue to deputise for the injured Carlo Cudicini in the Chelsea goal even though Neil Sullivan has now shaken off a thigh strain, while Arsenal have no injury worries for a tie from which London's first European Champion Clubs' Cup semi-finalists since Tottenham Hotspur FC in 1961/62 will emerge.
Despite being the favourites, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger believes the north Londoners are free of pressure. He justifies that viewpoint by recalling that before Ashley Cole's 89th-minute winner on Matchday 4 against FC Dynamo Kyiv, the Gunners were heading for an early exit from the competition having taken just one point from their first three fixtures.
"We were nearly out - 99 per cent out - and we are still in so
I don't see why we should have any pressure," Wenger said. "We have a little bit more confidence because for a while we didn't know how to win a Champions League game and suddenly we've won five on the trot."
Wenger does not believe that all the talk about Ranieri will distract the Chelsea players. "We expect our opponents to be at their best. It is the quarter-final of the Champions League, a big game, and against that all these other consequences become quite minor."
He expects Damien Duff, who missed the two most recent meetings with Arsenal through injury, to provide Chelsea's principal threat. "He's a major danger," said the Frenchman. "He can run at you with the ball, he can provide crosses, he can score goals and he is one we have to keep quiet."
The following players will miss the second leg if booked: Carlo Cudicini, Adrian Mutu (Chelsea); Edu (Arsenal).
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