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Chelsea keep noses clean
- Ranieri’s team-sheet reflects his strategy of buying good characters and players

They may have painted over the red that usually colours the Premiership high ground but Chelsea seem determined not to turn the air blue. John Terry and William Gallas, Frank Lampard and Claude Makelele may be resolute competitors in the most volatile areas of a football field but they embody the new Premiership leaders’ admirable discipline. Little dissent has stained Chelsea’s ascent.

The XI who started against Manchester United on Sunday had shared only six domestic yellow cards (one fewer than Fulham’s Junichi Inamoto) plus Geremi’s red between them this season. That tally rose to 10 during Sunday’s summit meeting which reflected more on Alan Wiley’s inconsistent officiating than any malevolence on Chelsea’s behalf.

Apart from an overzealous lunge by Mario Melchiot, even die-hard United fans would have struggled to claim any of the three other cautions were particularly heinous. Joe Cole half-kicked the ball away, Adrian Mutu dithered momentarily in front of a United free-kick while Lampard was penalised for a tackle that lacked timing and malice. Moments after Lampard’s challenge, a carbon-copy infringement by Phil Neville on Damien Duff was overlooked by Wiley.

Chelsea’s good disciplinary record partly flows from the example set by their hugely sporting manager, Claudio Ranieri, who rarely criticises referees.

When the flamboyant Italian raises his hands to the fourth official in the dug-out, like Graham Poll on Sunday, it is more likely to embrace him than throttle him. Ranieri’s players are aware that silly bookings for dissent can culminate in suspension, so gifting an opportunity for another of Chelsea’s dressing-room cast of thousands. Or for Roman Abramovich to invite a famous replacement to step through the transfer window.

Maybe Chelsea’s players have been reading Ken Bates’s programme notes in which he argued that “every yellow card should carry a fine of 10 per cent of the week’s wage”. Dismissal, argued the chairman, deserved that the “player forfeits his wages for the length of the consequent suspension”.

Like Arsenal and United, Chelsea’s behaviour on the playing fields of Europe has been impressive; of their seven Champions League games (beginning with the qualifiers against Zilina), Ranieri’s squad has collected only eight yellows (including Glen Johnson’s naive brace at Lazio). Remove that fractious tie in Rome, where the players were repeatedly provoked by cave-men like Sinisa Mihajlovic, and Chelsea receive a yellow every other game.

Running through Ranieri’s team-sheet, it is hard to find too many nasty streaks, reflecting the Italian’s strategy of buying good characters as well as good players. Johnson has been sent off twice this season - once for the England Under-21s which precludes his involvement in the first game of Euro 2004 - but such excess can be put down to the impetuosity of youth.

Through the physical nature of their trade, centre-halves like Gallas and Terry are liable to picking up bookings. Not often. Gallas’s immaculate interceptions, using his pace to get him out of trouble, and sangfroid with opponents and officials alike means the French international has yet to be cautioned in 14 games this term.

Terry, who tends to slide into tackles more and so risks catching a flying forward, has four yellows in 18 games — nearly seven hours elapse between Terry’s bookings. At left-back, the cocky Wayne Bridge may be unpopular with the media but referees love him and he has yet to be booked in 18 appearances.

Duff has still to have his name taken, Cole had not erred until Sunday while Lampard has been booked only twice in 21 games, impressive for such a tireless toiler in the boiler-room. Even Makelele, described by Lampard as Chelsea’s “insurance policy” in front of the back-four, has only two bookings in 16 appearances.

Two other clean players, Jesper Gronkjaer and Juan Sebastian Veron, have three yellows between them while Hernan Crespo has yet to be talked to in 11 outings. The one concern for Ranieri must be Mutu. The Romanian can get carried away in the bigger games like Besiktas at home, Lazio away (where he clearly had some previous with Mihajlovic) and against United.

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