Ancelotti's steady hand has Chelsea in perfect shape
AS he gave his last press briefing of an extraordinary first season in English football, Carlo Ancelotti was asked on Saturday evening what he made of Jose Mourinho’s observation that the current Chelsea team have had an easier time of it than the side Mourinho first led to a title five years ago.
Ancelotti’s rogue left eyebrow bobbed up and down a couple of times, he glanced at his part-time interpreter and gave his answer. “I have a very good relationship with Mourinho,” he said. “Please don’t damage it.”
No one in the room had to be told that Ancelotti was joking and as a means of taking the sting out of Mourinho’s jibe it was perfect. The former Chelsea manager does not have much of a sense of humour about these kinds of things but Ancelotti does and in his maiden season at the club it has served him well in the face of the usual rows, scandals and general pitfalls.
The completion of the club’s first league and cup double is also not a bad way of keeping everyone at Stamford Bridge happy. For the first time since 2005, after Mourinho’s first title, Chelsea can face the summer with the reassurance that they do not have to sack, appoint or appease a manager.
In May 2006, Mourinho announced that he had almost quit twice in the course of the preceding season, despite the fact he finished it with a second title.
By 2007, his relationship with the club’s owner, Roman Abramovich, had reached rock bottom and he was sacked in September. The following year Chelsea sacked Avram Grant and appointed Luiz Felipe Scolari – by last summer he too was gone.
This time, there is an unfamiliar calm about the place. There will be acquisitions and departures, but Chelsea know the identity of the man who will be picking the team come August and, at a club that changes their manager about as often as the design of their home shirt, that represents progress.
Ancelotti has two years left on his existing deal at Chelsea and he was openly welcoming of a possible new contract, suggesting he would be happy to stay for 10 years. Given the compensation Abramovich has had to pay previous managers, Ancelotti is pushing his luck in that regard – even with a trophy under each arm.
“I’m happy to sign a new contract,” Ancelotti said. “I think stability is important. If we can work together for a long time, it’s better to have stability for the club. It’s also important for the manager, because it’s not easy if you’re changing club every year. After this first season, if they asked me how long I want to stay here I would say maybe 10 years. That wouldn’t be bad, especially if every season is like this season.”
There is something of a rebuilding job to be done at Chelsea and the natural renewal of players coming to the end of their useful careers, but the average age of the team that started on Saturday is just short of 29 years old, which is by no means catastrophic.
Ancelotti said that there would be “one or two” new players but seemed just as pleased about the return of Michael Essien and Jose Bosingwa.
As for the suggestion that Frank Lampard could be a serious target for Real Madrid, Ancelotti dismissed it as a non-starter. “This is a joke,” he said. “Lampard will stay here. When I started here last season there was a problem with John Terry (being courted by) Manchester City. And every time I said, ‘No, JT will stay here’. I don’t want to have to do the same with Frank. He will stay here.”
The final itself was not the turkey shoot some had predicted and if Kevin-Prince Boateng had beaten Petr Cech with that 55th-minute penalty then it would have been a thrilling last halfhour as Chelsea laid siege. But for all Portsmouth’s pluck, despite being on the edge of financial oblivion, there was something about the way they played that was unpalatable.
There were two dreadful challenges in the game that were, in the lexicon of a bygone era, ‘leg-breakers’. The boots may be multicoloured these days and the referee’s whistle heard much more frequently, but the challenges by Boateng on Michael Ballack and Aruna Dindane on Ashley Cole belonged to a time when football was a far more volatile game.
Ballack was effectively kicked out of the final before half-time. Cole was very nearly put out of the World Cup finals with seven minutes left. Those tackles put into perspective Grant’s post-match rant against the dark forces who he claims are victimising Portsmouth – most of us would say that their financial plight was of their own making – and served as a reminder that the little guy is not always the good guy.
That Chelsea struck the frame of their opposition’s goal five times before Didier Drogba scored the winner just before the hour made you wonder if it was a just-one-of-those-days occasion for the Premier League champions. The strength of the truly great clubs is that they eventually find a way through and Chelsea would have been more comfortable had Frank Lampard not missed an 87th-minute penalty.
There was a brief hug on the pitch between Joe Cole and Ancelotti at the end of the game but you have to wonder whether Cole has played his last game for that club. He is a free agent at the end of the month and perhaps it is not so much the money now that will influence his decision to go or stay, but the fact that his manager just does not seem willing to find a place for him in the first team.
“I have never had a problem with my players,” Ancelotti said. “Not even with the players on the bench. It was an easier season for me than normal, because (in Italy) sometimes I’ve had problems maintaining the motivation of players who are not playing frequently. But this season it’s been very easy. It’s easy to manage Chelsea.”
That, as well as the two trophies, is something that Chelsea have striven for ever since Abramovich took over the club. In recent years, a Chelsea post-season has been as hard to predict as an English summer – but this year it looks as if they have got it right.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Ivanovic, Alex, Terry, A Cole; Lampard, Ballack (Belletti, 44), Malouda; Kalou (J Cole, 71), Drogba, Anelka (Sturridge, 90). Substitutes not used Hilario (gk), Zhirkov, Ferreira, Matic.
Portsmouth (4-5-1): James; Finnan, Mokoena, Rocha, Mullins (Belhadj, 81); Dindane, Diop (Kanu, 81), O'Hara, Brown, Boateng (Utaka, 73); Piquionne. Substitutes not used Ashdown (gk), Vanden Borre, Hughes, Ben Haim.
Booked: Portsmouth Boateng, Rocha.
Referee C Foy (Merseyside).
Man of the match James.