James Lawton: Madame Guillotine at the Bridge
ACCORDING to the bookmakers, who generally know best, Gerard Houllier is only marginally more likely to be the next Premier League manager fired than the man he faces at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, Carlo Ancelotti.
Aston Villa’s Houllier is 4/1, only one point shorter than the Chelsea manager. This is a travesty whichever way you look at it, but then big-time football has its own set of rules.
One of them is written in stone. It says that you don’t go into the kind of downward spirals recently experienced by both Villa and Chelsea without huge pressure on the man who is supposed to be in charge.
Where this black and white imperative can become hopelessly confused is in the crucial matter of apportioning responsibility after establishing who it is making the most vital decisions.
However, in the race for the sack between Houllier and Ancelotti some of the required analysis does not seem quite so demanding.
The former is operating under an American owner who, while emphatic about the need for financial curbs, has a relatively clean record in the matter of interference in team affairs. Ancelotti, by comparison, is the latest victim of his Russian owner’s nightmare conviction that he knows something about the dynamics of a successful football team.
Villa’s Randy Lerner has kept his silence while his club have disintegrated as a seriously competitive force since the departure of Martin O’Neill.
The owner left Eastlands earlier this week tight-lipped but plainly in shock after seeing Villa surrender quite abysmally in a 4-0 defeat by Manchester City. He will apparently keep his counsel at least until the psychologically huge derby match with city rivals Birmingham City, but the prognosis on Houllier’s survival cannot be good.
This is especially so when you consider that his track record in the market can scarcely be a source of confidence for serious remedial action in the opening transfer window.
In the years of decline at Liverpool in the late 1990s, Houllier spent freely but with mostly catastrophic results. It’s true Rafael Benitez turned his hugely bloated squad inheritance into a Champions League-winning team but the mystery of that has grown a little with each year since Liverpool’s recovery of a 3-0 deficit to Ancelotti’s Milan in the final in Istanbul.
Particularly dismaying now is the breakdown in relations between the Villa manager and three players of proven ability in the top flight, Richard Dunne, Stephen Ireland and John Carew.
It may be true that in Ireland’s case his refusal to move to within easy driving distance of the club’s training ground has complicated the issue considerably, but in Villa’s situation, and Houllier’s briefing, the priority has been laid down clearly enough. It’s to make the best of what you have available and the policy has, in the opinion of some insiders, been mocked by the decision to bring in Houllier’s ageing compatriot Robert Pires.
Villa need vital stiffening and drive and, it seems, they have been given a once beautiful adornment.
For admirers of Ancelotti, who not surprisingly given his distinguished career (four European Cup triumphs, two as a player, two as a coach, and the English double of Premier League and FA Cup in his first season) relatively speaking form a great legion, his imperiled situation is nothing short of a scandal – and another one perpetrated his owner Abramovich.
Having marginalised and made toothless Jose Mourinho, the oligarch seems hell-bent on repeating the process with Ancelotti.
It’s a development that defies belief when you consider the brilliance of Chelsea’s closing of last season and early running in this one. They were serene, a class apart in the power and intelligence of their running and in their explosive finishing.
How could you hijack such a highflying team? Undermining its pilot was, of course, the place to start and Abramovich duly obliged.
His removal of Ray Wilkins, a piece of the furniture of the club and a former player of both Chelsea and Milan, as the manager’s English Man Friday, an expert guide to the terrain and the mores of a foreign game, was devastating.
One effect was to leave Ancelotti wearing a permanent expression of bemusement. Another, it is understood, was widespread disenchantment in the dressing-room.
Wilkins didn’t initiate any great strategies but he was a solid character, diplomatic but sure about the right way the wheels should go round. His replacement was an obscure former Nigerian international and opposition scout. He was imposed on Ancelotti and the Italian’s body language eloquently confirmed that this was so.
There was also the crucial matter of the manager’s understanding of his most basic need to strengthen his resources. Having lost the hugely experienced Michael Ballack in a summer cost-cutting exercise, Ancelotti identified a clear case for strengthening his midfield resources. Frank Lampard, as it was proved soon enough, couldn’t run for ever and Michael Essien was coming back from a difficult injury.
Ancelotti wanted the German powerhouse, Bastian Schweinsteiger. He got the frail Brazilian Ramires.
What he least needed was the trouncing by Arsenal at the start of the week. Chelsea do not lose to Arsenal, however rich the creative vein of their north London rivals, and that they should do so badly, with such little sign of coherent resistance, was a sickening blow.
There might have been another on Wednesday night, but for a goal from Florent Malouda. The pass which enabled the Frenchman to halt the menace of a confident Bolton was supplied by Didier Drogba from a position that more than sniffed of offside, but Ancelotti shrugged and said that was football. You take the good breaks along with the bad ones.
On Sunday, Ancelotti will require one or two of the kinder variety of he wants to stay behind Houllier in the race for Madame Guillotine.
“I think we will be better, more confident now,” he said. He managed not to gulp when he said it – or look over his shoulder. It was not the least impressive feat of his embattled night.