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Posted on April 9, 2011
Carlo Ancelotti has seen his once formidable, Double-winning Chelsea side unravel this season. Photograph: Tom Hevezi/AP
Didier Drogba wore a bra to denote two cups and Carlo Ancelotti abandoned Italian cool for the day to chant away on the deck of the open-top bus carrying Chelsea through west London. A Premier League and FA Cup Double winner in his first season in charge, Ancelotti had declared: “I think this team has the quality to win the Champions League – without changes.”
Looking back 11 months, in the light of Chelsea’s quarter-final first-leg defeat to Manchester United in Europe on Wednesday night, the phrase “without changes” jars. Why did he say that? Because he thought the side who had just beaten Portsmouth at Wembley was unimprovable? Or was the word from on high that Roman Abramovich, the owner, was fed up with siphoning so much of his wealth to players, agents and rival clubs and would be scaling back?
There have been changes at Stamford Bridge, as we saw in midweek. The biggest is that this Chelsea XI can no longer consistently summon the bulldozer strength that forced opposition teams back against a wall. Also missing from much of their play is the old pace, decisiveness and conviction.
The best Chelsea teams have taken to the field sure they were going to win, as all great sides do. You no longer see that now. A camera on Ancelotti in this campaign would reveal a pattern of frustration. It would show the ball moving across the field instead of down it, and players in the back half of the team slow, unsure, in their thinking. It would confirm an absence of the old macho resolve to drive straight through the heart of the opposition and then let Frank Lampard or one of the strikers complete the kill.
Chelsea are playing not to retain their Premier League but to stay in the Champions League, this year and next. They went out of the Carling Cup in September (to Newcastle United) and the FA Cup to Everton: both at Stamford Bridge, once a no-go zone for visitors. Before Wigan came to town yesterday Chelsea had lost seven league games and were 11 points behind United, who take an away goal into Tuesday’s Champions League second leg.
There is only one way this is heading. Ancelotti has 90 minutes to save his job. For a long time the word on the street has been that he would leave the club in the summer anyway. Elimination from Europe at the last-eight stage would end the discussion. A regression from two major trophies last year to early Cup calamities and a low podium finish in the Premier League would be much more offensive to Abramovich than any minor retreat ascribable to Claudio Ranieri, José Mourinho, Avram Grant or Luiz Felipe Scolari, who never made it to the business end of the 2008-09 campaign.
Reflecting on his Double conquest, a year ago, Ancelotti said: “I am normal [ie not ‘special’, like Mourinho]. I am lucky. At Milan I found a fantastic club. And I did not have a lot of problems in my job this year. I could count every time on the support of my club, my owner, my players.”
He would not say that now. The machinations in John Terry’s personal life and Ashley Cole’s itchy trigger finger are just two of the complications he has had to deal with in a campaign heavy on internal politics and light on stability. The sacking by Abramovich of Ray Wilkins, Ancelotti’s friend and ally, wiped out the manager’s autonomy and showed him to be powerless in the face of proprietorial capriciousness.
The “without changes” policy was abandoned in January when Champions League qualification was cast in doubt by the team’s alarming form. Here again, Abramovich’s dictatorial power erased managerial independence. David Luiz, the gifted Brazilian centre-back bought from Benfica, would be received as a gift by any sensible coach. But Fernando Torres, at £50m, could be another Abramovich vanity project: potentially a Spanish Andriy Shevchenko.
Ancelotti loves talking about “moments”, good and bad. So here are two. On Friday new figures showed that Abramovich’s interest-free loans to the club had reached £739.5m by the end of the 2009-10 campaign, when Drogba clipped on his bra for the victory parade. That sum excludes the £73m spent on Luiz and Torres. Chelsea paid £172.5m in wages – up £20m on the previous year – before Torres’s salary is taken into account.
In the United game itself, as Lampard passed 500 Chelsea appearances, the Torres conundrum really kicked in. In his 11th game for club and country without a goal, El Niño was part of a blunt two-man strike force with Drogba. Ancelotti had reverted to 4-4-2 to squeeze both forwards in, abandoning the team’s best shape (4-3-3) and surrendering a midfield advantage to United, who used Wayne Rooney as the link between front and middle, which shaped the game.
Neither Torres nor Drogba were winning any awards, but Torres was the most obvious candidate to come off in the view of most experts in the ground.
Ancelotti hunkered down with his assistants to discuss team shape, tactics, club politics. The number that flashed up as Nicolas Anelka disrobed was not the nine of Torres but Drogba’s 11. Drogba made his way to the bench smiling and shaking his head, as if to say: “That’s how this club works.”
“That’s how Chelsea are run,” said a former England international later.
There was sympathy for Ancelotti but also a widespread sense that the owner’s meddling had again become the story. Alongside that there remains a suspicion that too many starters in this team have trained off. The Train, Michael Essien, is trundling between stations; Florent Malouda is quiet again; Mikel is ponderous and clumsy; José Bosingwa has lost thrust at right-back and before the Wigan game Drogba and Anelka had 16 Premier League goals between them.
The two biggest success stories are the Brazilian recruits, David Luiz and Ramires, who should have been awarded a penalty in the dying moments on Wednesday night. From this it could be deduced that the problems stem from the low-spending years, when the club failed to plan beyond last May’s triumphs. The recent acquisition of the 17-year-old Lucas Piazón, a hot name in Brazil points to an awareness among Abramovich and his cabal that Chelsea need to copy the United model of international youth recruitment to protect that £739.5m investment.
But the future is Tuesday night: 90 minutes at Old Trafford, where Chelsea are bound to arrive assailed by doubt, given the Stamford Bridge result and their overall form in league and cups. An alternative narrative, though, is their fine record against United of four defeats in 20 (excluding Community Shields and the Moscow shoot-out) since Abramovich bought the club in 2003.
In this happier scenario Chelsea score a 2-1 win, advance to meet Schalke (probably) in the semi-finals and then secure a place in the finale at Wembley on 28 May, where they become the first London team to win the European Cup by defeating Real Madrid or Barcelona.
Suspended between these extremes, Ancelotti plans for his last days or his best one, with Abramovich, as ever, on his shoulder.