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Friday, April 30, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

Abramovich learning that money can't buy the Premiership


LONDON -- In the year of the comeback it should be no surprise if Chelsea manages to overturn the 3-1 first-leg deficit when it meets Monaco in the Champions League semifinal, second-leg match at Stamford Bridge next week.

Christopher Davies

Monaco, against Real Madrid, and Deportivo La Coruna, against AC Milan, performed similar 'Missions Impossible' in the quarterfinals, but unlike Chelsea, it has not had the heart ripped out of the club from within.

What is happening at Chelsea is proof, if it were needed, that money cannot buy you class.

When Roman Abramovich and his billions rode into Chelsea last July to save the club from probable administration, the Russian was greeted with open arms.

Nine months and £130 million worth of players of varying quality later, Chelsea is in disarray, despite being second in the Premiership and one win from the Champions League final.

Chelsea is openly looking for a successor to Claudio Ranieri and whatever one's view on the Italian, he deserved more respect than for recruitment to proceed while he is trying to bring Team Abramovich a return on the Russian's investment.

FC Porto's Jose Mourinho is the favorite to succeed Ranieri, raising the intriguing possibility of the two coaches meeting in the Champions League final.

This could mean Mourinho effectively trying to do all he can to prevent his future employers from becoming Champions of Europe by beating his current employers. The dark side of this and the inevitable accompanying whispers surrounding such a compromising situation are too sensitive to contemplate. More immediately, the fallout from the first-leg defeat in Monaco continues with conspiracy theories aplenty. One is that Ranieri, whose bizarre tactical tinkering and substitutions in the Stade Louis II were incomprehensible, sabotaged the tie because he does not want Abramovich and chief executive Peter Kenyon to bask in the glory of winning the Champions League and then booting out the manager who led the team to European glory.

Fantasy stuff, of course, like the story which smacked of public relations saying Abramovich was moved to tears by the defeat. Somehow it is hard to imagine a Russian who has become a billionaire in 10 years, has bulletproof glass in his cars, offices and homes, plus an entourage of armed guards following him everywhere, crying over spilled goals but I may do him a disservice.

Though Abramovich's riches may be envied, he lives in a James Bond world which few would want.

Such is the paranoia about security, Abramovich and his wife and children never travel in the same bomb-proof car -- with darkened bulletproof windows -- for fear of them losing both parents if an attempt is made on his life.

His wife, Irena, even has a female minder who accompanies her to the toilet.

Abramovich's posse causes problems at away grounds because many clubs do not like the idea of a team of armed guards in their directors lounge.

When you have made as much money as Abramovich has -- £7.4 billion give or take a million or two -- you also collect a few enemies on the way, a scenario he can reflect on from his £10 million villa at St. Tropez, his £79 million yacht Le Grande Bleu, berthed in Monte Carlo, the slightly cheaper yacht Pelorus (which does have a missile detection system though), his six-story £28 million mansion in London or his £12 million estate in Sussex.

Abramovich wants he usually gets, but not the stunning film-set like palace overlooking the bay at Monte Carlo, whose owner was contacted by one of the Russian's representatives.

"Mr. Abramovich would like to buy your house. He is prepared to offer £30 million," the owner was told.

"Not for sale," was his response. Maybe if you can afford a house like that you don't need to sell it.

A week later he was contacted again, the offer increased to £32 million. Same response, not for sale.

This continued until the offer reached £50 million at which point the owner telephoned Abramovich's representative.

"Can I ask you, which one of the three words does Mr. Abramovich not understand? Is it 'not,' 'for' or 'sale'?" End of offers. It must rank as a rare failure for Abramovich who is said to earn £220,000 per day in interest alone.

However, he is finding that throwing money at a football club, much of it unwisely, does not guarantee success.

Many feel Ranieri, and not Abramovich or Kenyon, deserves to win the Champions League, but the chances are Monaco will survive its visit to Stamford Bridge next Wednesday and advance to the final.

In most other seasons, Chelsea would have won the championship. It is Claudio Ranieri's and Chelsea's bad luck to find themselves up against a most remarkable Arsenal team, which wrapped up the title last Sunday, unbeaten in 34 games with four to go.

Arsene Wenger has put together a wonderful team without breaking the bank. The crucial word is "team" rather than a collection of individuals which Ranieri has at Stamford Bridge, though not all were the Italian's choice.

Roman Abramovich's advisers started to buy players like the Russian buys yachts, while Wenger chooses his investments wisely.

Chelsea's best players this season -- John Terry, William Gallas, Frank Lampard, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen -- were already at the club pre-Abramovich. Maybe there's a moral there somewhere.

Juan Veron, Adrian Mutu and Hernan Crespo are just three big-money failures, with Crespo reported to be earning £85,000 a week, plus £10,000 for every goal he scores, which is hardly an incentive to pass to a teammate in the penalty area.

Thierry Henry and Robert Pires cost Arsenal around £10 million each and what bargains they have proved to be.

Vieira, a £5 million signing from AC Milan, is now the Premiership's premier midfielder, though as Arsenal tries to go through the entire season unbeaten, it will reflect on a missed opportunity in the Champions League.

How ironic that Arsenal was knocked out by Chelsea, which went on to play Monaco, Wenger's former club.

Even if Arsenal completes 2003-2004 unbeaten, there will still be a nagging frustration about the Champions League, but not nearly as big as the storm clouds gathering over Stamford Bridge.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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