PRAGUE: New owner Roman Abramovichs stunning summer spending spree has paid early dividends as Chelsea remain unbeaten in the Premiership after four matches.
But success on the Champions League battleground would be the real reward for the Russian oil magnates £111mil (US$175.5mil) outlay.
After negotiating the tricky qualifying stages, the 1999/2000 quarter-finalists are rated the pick of the outsiders to capture European club footballs ultimate prize this season.
Their campaign proper starts today against Sparta Prague but with an annual budget of just £2mil the Czech champions would appear to have their work cut out.
Spartas fourth coach in two years, Jiri Kotrba, conceded as much when he said: Claudio Ranieris side look like an almost impossible task for us.
Chelsea travel to the Czech capital spurred on by Saturdays 4-2 win over Tottenham, a result that did not altogether satisfy Ranieri.
We didnt start the way I would have liked but after that we showed fantastic character and played good football, said the Italian.
But we still have to work very hard because we are not a team yet.
Ranieri believes Claude Makeleles arrival from Real Madrid could prove the key to their European fortunes.
I already had a fantastic watch, but now Claude is the battery, he said colourfully.
Hes the worlds best playmaker. He made Real Madrid play last season, but always from the shadows.
While Europes top competition generally falls to one of just a handful of clubs Ranieri is hoping Chelsea can do a Valencia, a reference to his former club which reached successive finals.
Among those aiming to pull one over Chelseas star-studded cast are ex-Manchester United player Karel Poborsky, who was on target for his national side in their 3-1 win over Holland last week.
Like Abramovich, Kotrba went on a shopping trip all of his own this summer resulting in the arrival of nine new players including Radoslav Kovac, who made a name for himself at the European Under-21 Championships.
Ranieri has a Champions League-winning recipe in mind for Chelsea the ingredients coming from Serie A, Spains Primera Liga and the Premiership.
He explains: The Italians are a little more astute than the British teams. There it is not important to play well. The important thing is to not let the opposition play well and try to kill them.
The Spanish teams have a way of keeping the ball English teams do not.
To the Champions League Id like to bring those Italian and Spanish attributes and merge them with the spirit of the English teams.
Chelseas other Group G rivals are Lazio, free of the financial constraints that dogged them last season, and Turkish titleholders Besiktas. AFP