Saturday 18 November 2017

Ancelotti manages to gain upper hand

Chelsea have been flawed this season but they have concealed their weaknesses well, says Dion Fanning

T here is no better place for Chelsea to clinch the title than at Anfield today. It has been a season based on the chaos theory and Anfield is the spiritual home of chaos.

This has been a diminished Premier League and it is fitting that it could be decided at the club which, against some competition, is in the most reduced circumstances.

Liverpool were expected by many to challenge for the title but instead will spend the summer contemplating the most fundamental uncertainty in their history.

There have been the normal protestations about the effort Liverpool will put in today and nobody should have any doubts: Liverpool will be trying but, as has been established this season, that is no longer enough.

Their future is in peril, not only because of their failure to finish in the top four and the destruction of the club caused by Tom Hicks and George Gillett, but because of the identity of the club that might replace them.

English football has been a closed shop for the past few years. Everton finished fourth in 2005 but failed to make the group stages of the Champions League, allowing the familiar four to continue. In other countries, there has been more variety, but in England change is always confused with decay. In Liverpool's case, it might be true, especially if Manchester City get to fourth instead of them.

The story of Chelsea is an example of how quickly things can change. Roberto Mancini is not Jose Mourinho but the Abu Dhabi Billionaires will feel that they have the ability, in a sinking market, to overcome that problem.

Chelsea were once seen as preposterous impostors too. Together Mourinho and Roman Abramovich changed all that. If they are to establish the club as one with aspirations to longevity, it is important Carlo Ancelotti does it this season. Chelsea are an ageing side, as most teams are now in the Premier League. The leaders cannot be replaced easily or cheaply.

If the season cannot be said to have gone as planned, Chelsea's fortune has not all been good. The loss of Michael Essien has left them scrambling to find a midfielder who understands how to control a game. They stand on the verge of another title without having found one.

Instead, Ancelotti gambled in the final weeks, dropping Didier Drogba for the game at Old Trafford and sending Deco and Joe Cole out in the same team.

United are not so much playing on their own reputation but on the reputation of others, namely Wayne Rooney. When Rooney is absent, United still look to him because where else can they turn? Only Rooney and the belief of their opponents that there is something to be feared have kept United in the title charge.

But they are powerful factors to fight against. Chelsea's double against United may be the decisive moments in a race that is an exhausting examination of weakness.

The game at Old Trafford was poor and it was another convincing piece of evidence in the case that neither side is a convincing champion. The referee, as so often in this season of bad decisions, could probably be seen as the decisive figure.

It's not the team with the fewer weaknesses that will win it this season, because both sides are fundamentally flawed, but the one which manages to conceal them at the right time. Chelsea have managed that so far. Ancelotti has had the resources -- when others have faltered, he has managed to find a temporary solution.

They also have had to accommodate John Terry, which has been seen as a decisive moment, but decisive in which direction has yet to be established. Last week, Terry made some bold claims about his form and insisted, with some more justification, that to make the link between what happened on the field and what he got up to was a pointless task.

It has been added to the list, to the story's twists, along with the summit meeting Abramovich held after their Champions League exit to Inter Milan. None of it mattered. The truth is more mundane: neither side was good enough to punish the weaknesses of the other.

If Chelsea triumph today, Ancelotti will be hailed and retrospectively everything will be said to make sense. Already there are many who claim that the best thing that happened to Chelsea was that exit to Inter. If this was good news, then the dropped points at Blackburn the following Sunday must have also been a triumph.

For a side that has lost five times away from home -- at Wigan, Aston Villa, Manchester City, Everton and Spurs -- this season, maybe it does. Or maybe there is no explaining this season except in terms of its chaos.

Chelsea were able to sustain a challenge, not so much because of what they did, but because of what they didn't do and what others had to do. Manchester United were weakened by the loss of Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. Liverpool were structurally unbalanced by the departure of Xabi Alonso and Arsenal willingly let Emmanuel Adebayor go. Abramovich is no longer prepared to spend the money he once did.

So Chelsea go looking for victory at Anfield and there is no outcome that will make Liverpool supporters happy. If Liverpool get three points, their season still has some notional meaning.

It will have more meaning for Ferguson who, despite his loathing of Rafa Benitez, was sincere in expecting that a club of Liverpool's traditions will play to win this afternoon. Ferguson always admired Liverpool's traditions while wanting to make them ancient history.

There was a time when Liverpool looked like they could counter his will and counter economics in the form of Chelsea. But then they met their own financial wizards and all hope was lost.

When Benitez leaves in the summer, the club will be without a manager, for sale and falling into the void.

Benitez once bonded with his supporters through his defiance. There was Istanbul, but, as importantly, there was his refusal to be pushed around by carpet-baggers. Chelsea represented them and a London arrogance and assumption that was galling to the Celtic city.

Liverpool no longer need to look out of town for their hate figures. Ancelotti, too, is impossible to loathe. He has lasted the season at Chelsea which, given the post-Mourinho record, could allow him to make a case for having brought stability and order. If he has, it has been rocky and disordered in keeping with the season.

Benitez will depart worn down and diminished. Liverpool will be as weary today. Steven Gerrard has disappeared and looks as if his legs are gone which increases the need for him to find a football brain before it's too late. Chelsea will win today and there will be more unravelling. The Glazers stand accused too. Manchester City are ready to pounce.

Change may yet be coming and it has no interest in tradition. Victory for Chelsea today may see the dawning of a new, blue era.

Liverpool v Chelsea,

Sky Sports 1, 1.30

Sunday Independent

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