Claudio Ranieri has warned his players not to slip up against Watford tonight as Chelsea bid to tee up an FA Cup fourth-round tie which would encapsulate everything football’s most famous knockout competition stands for.
The Blues take on First Division Watford at Stamford Bridge in a third-round replay, having survived a major scare to draw 2-2 at Vicarage Road the weekend before last.
Meanwhile, 250 miles to the north, Conference side Scarborough take on Division Three strugglers Southend in another replay – with the winners playing host to the Stamford Bridge victors in the next round.
A contest between Chelsea’s millionaires and Boro or the Shrimpers would ensure a healthy dose of the romance and drama which has made the FA Cup the competition it is today.
And Ranieri has demanded his players secure their participation in a tie which would be an enormous money-spinner for Scarborough or Southend.
“We didn’t play well at Watford and now I want to see us play like we did against Leicester on Sunday (when Chelsea won 4-0),” the Italian said.
“Watford scored two goals in the first game and put us under pressure.
“It won’t be easy against them as it’s a derby and there are no easy games in the FA Cup.”
Chelsea suffered a double injury blow last night as reports suggested Juan Sebastian Veron could face surgery on his back problem.
Although not explicitly confirming that, Ranieri did admit: “He’s only 50% or 60% and I check on him every day.
“Now I am waiting to decide on the best solution for him.”
And Veron will be joined in the treatment room for the next six weeks by forward Hernan Crespo.
The £16.8 (€24.3m) Argentinian front man is set for a lay-off twice as long as first expected after further examination of his calf injury.
The good news is winger Damien Duff could feature on the bench against Ray Lewington’s Hornets after recovering from his dislocated shoulder.
But midfielder Emmanuel Petit is still out with his knee problem.
Ranieri yesterday claimed he was happy with his squad – just hours after Charlton rejected a Chelsea raid for England midfielder Scott Parker.
Ranieri discovered in the morning his reported £6m (€8.6m) enquiry for Parker had been rebuffed.
But, at lunchtime, the Italian surprisingly insisted he already had enough players.
He said: “I’m very happy with the players I have. I have 21 outfield players and then goalkeepers as well.
“I’m not considering anything and the only thing I’m thinking about is the Watford game.”
Charlton issued an angry rebuttal of Chelsea’s move for their 23-year-old star player, who they are said to value at £12m (€17m).
Valley chief executive Peter Varney said: “Scott’s not for sale and we do not welcome this enquiry.
“We sincerely hope Chelsea accept our decision in this matter.
“Scott signed a new contract in the summer and is a vital part of our plans as we continue establishing Charlton as one of the top clubs in the country.”
But Ranieri, pressed whether he would still pursue Parker, the inspiration behind Charlton’s surge to fourth in the Premiership, was typically non-committal.
“People know me very well and I don’t ever say anything about players,” the Italian said. “It is okay. But that’s the only comment I’ll make.”