Age threatens to catch up with Chelsea
Published 18/03/2010 | 05:00
It has reached the point at Chelsea where every time they get a bad result in the Champions League you wonder if the manager might have to pay for it with his job. It is hardly the basis upon which to run a harmonious, settled club.
Carlo Ancelotti will not win the Champions League in his first season but to dispense with him immediately would be to make a mockery of Roman Abramovich's attempts to instil some kind of stability into this most volatile of the big-four clubs. Sometimes teams lose games: it is a simple, straightforward point but one that Chelsea, as a club, have struggled to accept in the past.
Jose Mourinho said as much in the aftermath of Tuesday's match, claiming that Abramovich was "not the same person" as he was when, in the summer of 2003, he bought Chelsea and changed English football. "Probably he thought it would be easy (to win the Champions League) when he arrived in football," Mourinho said. "It's not easy. The team that wins will have small details that will make the difference."
The Internazionale coach is not the first person who springs to mind when it comes to a poster boy for fatalistic acceptance of life's highs and lows. But he is right. Football at the highest level is a game of a million imponderables and all even the greatest managers can do is try to nail down as many as they can in any one game.
That is hard to explain to a Russian billionaire who, in the seven years since his supposed Damascene conversion to football at the 2003 Champions League final, has spent somewhere in the region of £710m in trying to repeat the experience with his own club. No one can guarantee him anything apart from the fact that the longer the wait goes on; the more he must keep spending.
Three out of Ancelotti's four predecessors -- Mourinho, Avram Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari -- were tossed aside quickly and ruthlessly at the first sign of failure. The indications are that Ancelotti will get a bit longer than them. He has said all season that Abramovich wants to win the Premier League or the Champions League and is not too bothered which one of the two; so the league it must be.
So Ancelotti gets another season -- but what about his players? This is the Chelsea team that Mourinho built and they are reaching an age where they will have to be replaced soon. By the time next season starts, six key players will be in their 30s: Michael Ballack will be 33, Didier Drogba, Ricardo Carvalho and Frank Lampard all 32, Nicolas Anelka 31 and Florent Malouda will be 30.
Like the current Milan squad, this Chelsea team are growing old together and although the club's U-18s are in the FA Youth Cup final, very few of those players have any first-team experience. They cannot go on indefinitely with a squad that was assembled in the days when Abramovich was paying the biggest fees in football.
The Frank Arnesen experiment in the academy has cost anything upwards of £60m but it is still yet to produce a single player who has nailed down a first-team place. In past years, Chelsea's failures in the Champions League have been offset by a new signing that has given them -- or at least promised to give them -- a new dimension. Sooner or later they will have to think about replacing the likes of Lampard and Drogba in the long-term; a task in replacing established players that Manchester United and Arsenal are so much better prepared for.
Inevitably it will mean that Abramovich will have to spend money yet again if he is to make Chelsea the attractive destination for big-name players that it was five years ago. With the club running at an annual loss -- £44m was the most recent -- that means the money will have to come externally.
The consolation, if there is any, is that Chelsea would still be sustaining giant losses even if they had won the Champions League by now. The fear is that if they do end up winning the damn thing one day, Abramovich will then have even greater reason to consider his long-term involvement with the club. One trophy is not going to make the expensive business of owning Chelsea any less punitive.