Consistency on the pitch still the best philosophy of all
Carlo Ancelotti seemed clear on what needed to be done when asked if he would alter his approach for this afternoon's game against Manchester United. "We want to use the same philosophy as always," he said. Hopefully for Chelsea it is not the one they adopted throughout November and December, or even during their most recent visit to Old Trafford in the Champions League.
When the work of an entire season could potentially be decided by one result, the temptation to alter your approach accordingly is never too far away. Whether it is a fixture which will decide relegation or promotion issues, European qualification or titles, the need to replicate the routine of any other game is generally seen as the way to do things. The logic is understandable -- it got us this far, why change now? -- but the added pressure of knowing there is no room to recover from a bad result will definitely play some part in the approach to the game. It will certainly be in the minds of some of the players.
The only experience I have of winner-takes-all matches are the play-offs in 2000 and 2002. It is an unusual atmosphere in the build-up. The importance of the games was obvious, but there were several lads who couldn't help but focus on the possibility of making the mistake that would cost us our season. Sports psychologists refer to it as the difference between motivating yourself towards achieving success or towards avoiding failure. The outcome is the same, but the focus of the preparation can be markedly different.
Paul Moody missed a string of chances against Wigan in 2000 and our season ended because of it. Dion Dublin had a great chance in 2002 against Birmingham which would have given us a late lead in the second leg. He missed, and they went on to score in the final minutes. In tears afterwards, he was inconsolable. But the damage was done. It was time to book our holidays.
As great as it is to be remembered for making the vital contribution on the way to victory, the feeling of shouldering the entire blame for defeat is as bad as it can get. No one player is responsible for a poor result, obviously, but in a game of such importance it is unusual for any measured logic to be applied by supporters. Andy Cole, for example, is still remembered for the chances he missed at Upton Park on the final day of the 1995 season. Blackburn Rovers lifted the title that day as a result of their efforts over the whole of that season, but many United fans think only of his misses in that game.
The philosophy Ancelotti refers to may well be the same one that served them so well at the beginning of the season when they showed the kind of form which would have won them the Premier League by Easter had they carried it on. But there has been little consistency since then over a season marred by constant disruption.
Ray Wilkins' departure in November appeared to have an immediate and lasting impact on results, while the arrival of Fernando Torres in January unsettled the balance of the team and brought attention once again on the influence of Roman Abramovich in team affairs. And Ancelotti himself looked to be on his way out of the club following their exit from the Champions League.
There have been no such troubles at Old Trafford. The Wayne Rooney issue was certainly disruptive for a brief spell but was seized upon by Ferguson to exert his influence and reaffirm his authority yet again. Manchester United have not been as impressive as in previous years, but leagues aren't won by drawing comparisons with those who have gone before. They have been more consistent than any other team this season.
The courage shown by Ferguson's team selection for last Wednesday night's Champions League semi-final against Schalke further illustrates his trust in the squad of players so many people have written off as mediocre. Their attitude and their approach has been reduced to the cliché of 'they never know they're beaten', but their determination to succeed is a trait they have shared with almost every United squad of the past 20 years. Their fourth title in five years will be virtually clinched if they avoid defeat this afternoon. Personally, I can't see it going any other way.
If Alex Ferguson was to talk of philosophies, we would know exactly what he meant.
Sunday Indo Sport