Monday 23 April 2018

Ancelotti fears for Chelsea title hopes

Jason Burt

EWOOD PARK will always have an iconic significance in Chelsea's history. It was here, five years ago, that Jose Mourinho led his buffed-up, bare-chested players -- who had thrown their shirts into the crowd -- in a swaggering statement of victory that said a first league title in 50 years was theirs.

Yesterday on a rain-sodden, overcast afternoon they slid to the kind of dispiriting draw that sends out another message.

This team no longer has the feel of favourites; no longer the air of champions-elect; the confidence to sweep aside opponents. In the space of a weekend they have dropped to third place in the table and, four points behind Manchester United, are further away from the top as they have been all season.

Manager Carlo Ancelotti had issued a rallying call on Friday, three days after crashing out of the Champions League to Mourinho's Inter Milan, and two days after holding meetings with Roman Abramovich, and talked defiantly of wanting to make history of his own, of delivering a league and FA Cup double to Chelsea. He spoke of 11 cup finals to come and although his team didn't lose this match, it was with the air of defeat that they returned south.

"Now we have less probability of winning the title," Ancelotti conceded in what was surely an honest assessment but, also, a big statement to make.

"At this moment now we have to start winning. Winning is the only solution, the only way forward they (United) are top of the list. We have to do better and leave this moment as soon as possible."

That starts on Wednesday away to Portsmouth and there is a sense that Ancelotti is now talking in hope rather than expectation. He talked of "confidence and momentum" and the need to restore both. "We can't afford to lose our composure," Ancelotti said.

Teams have momentum, either forward or backward and, right now, Chelsea's is in reverse.

When Ancelotti threw on Deco, there was no sense that he was turning to a bench studded with players either on top of their game or bursting to make a difference. He kept Joe Cole, walking on air because of fatherhood, but with a career diving down at Chelsea, among his unused replacements.

Ancelotti knows that both United and Arsenal must visit Ewood Park before the end of the season and he will desperately hope that the bonhomie of Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce to Alex Ferguson will not extend beyond him saying yesterday that his friend will be "chuffed" by this result. "But it was for us, not Alex. We've helped him a bit," Allardyce quickly added.

Abramovich's right-hand man Eugene Tenenbaum, a Chelsea director, was here and it was with a sense of bitter irony that he will have watched one of the most assured, powerful debuts the Premier League has seen.

It wasn't from a Chelsea player, and Abramovich has banged on long enough about a desire to see talented youngsters, come through, or a recruit from France, Portugal or Africa but an 18-year-old from Chorley by the name of Phil Jones who gave the kind of dominant display that will be remembered for years to come.

Indeed, it was the teenager who rallied Blackburn into life after an opening period in which they appeared resigned to defeat, supine and submissive.

The opposite of what to expect from a team managed by Allardyce. But it took two barrelling tackles in the first-half from the fearless Jones to kick-start his team-mates.

"He's like a young John Terry," Allardyce said and, unwittingly, twisted the knife with that one as the Chelsea captain, along with Frank Lampard, had the kind of colourless performance that sets alarm bells ringing.

And yet it all looked so different in the opening minutes. Blackburn appeared fearful, despite winning their last four homes games, and Chelsea easily claimed the lead as they counter-attacked down the Blackburn left.

With Martin Olsson caught up-field and El-Hadji Diouf failing to cover, Nicolas Anelka's quick feet easily took him past Keith Andrews. He crossed the ball low and Didier Drogba swept his 28th goal of the season into the net.

It seemed so easy. Maybe too easy. Soon after and Salomon Kalou, playing in the hole, the role that Cole craves, headed over from Lampard's corner and Anelka was wayward with a volley before a powerful header by Alex was scrambled away and stand-in goalkeeper Jason Brown beat out Florent Malouda's drive.

A second goal seemed inevitable but it didn't come and, then, Blackburn drew level. Brett Emerton crossed the ball deep and Diouf, at the far post, beat a static Paulo Ferreira to put his header firmly past Ross Turnbull. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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