Ancellotti facing a real test of mettle
IF being knocked out of the Champions League by Jose Mourinho was unfortunate for Carlo Ancelotti, seeing Chelsea's challenge for the Premier League dented by Avram Grant would be little short of calamitous.
Even a thick-skinned oligarch such as Roman Abramovich can take only so much humiliation at the hands of men he has dismissed.
Ancelotti accepts that Chelsea must beat Portsmouth tomorrow night to revive their title aspirations, but winning at Fratton Park would represent only the start of the onerous challenge he is facing.
The Italian has a maximum of 10 matches in the league and FA Cup in which to turn round Chelsea's season and his level of success will determine not only his future at Stamford Bridge, but that of several players and the direction of the club as a whole.
At Ewood Park last Sunday, Ancelotti was unable to explain a dip in form that has brought only two wins in their past six matches, but certain trends can be identified.
Key players such as John Terry, Frank Lampard and Nicolas Anelka have lost form at the same time, a combination of injuries has robbed Chelsea of stability at the back and, as a result, confidence has quickly drained away.
It is unclear whether Ancelotti has the strength of character to transform their fortunes, but there are several problems he must address if Chelsea are to stay in the title race.
In recent years, at the first sign of trouble, some of Chelsea's players have turned on their manager, whether it be Grant or Luiz Felipe Scolari, but such a mutiny must not be allowed to happen again.
Ancelotti must seize control of the dressing-room, making it clear that he is in charge and that any insubordination will not be tolerated.
Chelsea's team spirit was one of their greatest strengths for several years, but is less noticeable at the moment. This has been shown by the considerable fall in the number of late goals they have scored.
Chelsea have been conceding soft goals from set-pieces and aimless crosses all season, and although they could cope with such blemishes while scoring freely at the other end, it is costing them points now that their goals have dried up.
The return of Petr Cech from a calf injury at Fratton Park should give the back four added confidence, but Chelsea's problems run deeper than injuries to goalkeepers.
Other than his defiant match-winning goal at Burnley, Terry's performances have been indifferent since his private life became a talking point two months ago, while Ricardo Carvalho has not been himself this season. Given such difficulties, Chelsea should go back to basics and pay greater attention to defending from the front.
FRESHEN UP SQUAD
Chelsea's ageing players were first identified as a potential source of weakness by Alex Ferguson two years ago, and the Manchester United manager's prophecies of doom have been vindicated this season.
Of the six matches Chelsea have failed to win since the turn of the year, all were the second fixture of the week, after a minimal break. This suggests an elderly squad are struggling to cope with the intense demands of the Premier League, a problem that Scolari alluded to last season.
Lampard's supremely consistent levels have dropped recently, and while the vice-captain will always be picked, others could be rested.
Youngsters such as Gael Kakuta, Jeffrey Bruma and Fabio Borini, as well as the forgotten Joe Cole, have been on the bench all year and Ancelotti should consider using them more often.
Anelka's dip in form has been far more dramatic than that experienced by Terry or Lampard and requires immediate intervention from Ancelotti.
The France striker has not scored in the 10 matches since Didier Drogba returned from the Africa Cup of Nations at the end of January, a barren spell that has coincided with the breakdown of negotiations with the club over a new contract.
Chelsea want him to stay at the Bridge, but Anelka must prove he is worth the pay rise he is seeking rather than sulking over a perceived slight to his status.
Chelsea's sparkling start to the season was largely based on Ancelotti's bold tactic of playing two strikers up front, and this partnership must be revived.
Not since the "sexy football" days of Ruud Gullit, when style took priority over substance, have Chelsea been regarded as a soft touch, but they have been disturbingly flaky on their travels, particularly in the north of England.
They have been beaten away by Wigan Athletic, Everton, Manchester City and been held away to Hull City and Blackburn Rovers, results that would have been greeted with hoots of derision if they had been returned by Arsenal.
In three of their remaining eight league fixtures, Chelsea have to travel to Manchester United, Liverpool and Bolton Wanderers, and must toughen up if they to have any hope of winning the title. (© The Times, London)