Saturday 16 December 2017

Carlos keeps his cool, but questions remain

Carlo Ancelotti did not actually say "Crisis, what crisis?" but that was his message as he today brushed aside speculation that he was about to quit as Chelsea manager.

As Ancelotti prepared for tomorrow night's Champions League tie against MSK Zilina at Stamford Bridge, there was no sense that he believed he had been undermined by the sacking of his assistant Ray Wilkins against his wishes.

No bitterness that his plans have been further hindered by injuries to Frank Lampard and John Terry and the suspension of Michael Essien, and the fact that Chelsea went into the season with just two senior specialist central defenders. And if he was under pressure after three defeats in the last four matches then you would never have thought it as he jousted with reporters at his Champions League pre-match press conference.

Instead, he was relaxed and composed as he made it clear he wants to stay at Stamford Bridge to see out a contract which ends at the end of next season. There was, he insisted, no reason to consider his position. And, crucially, he has no wish for any extra power. "I prefer to stay in my position and control technical matters," was his answer to that question.

Coaching players to the "the best level" was his job description and he had no desire to become involved in financial or contract matters. Only time will tell if Ancelotti is really happy with someone else picking his right-hand man, but he did a good job of piling the responsibility for Chelsea's dreadful recent form on his own shoulders.

Yet where is the crisis? The fact is Chelsea are still leading the Premier League despite three defeats in their last four matches. They also boast the best record of any team in the Champions League with four wins out of four in Group F, having scored 12 goals, conceded just two and having already clinched their place in the knockout phase.

It takes the zing out of the confrontation with MSK Zilina, who sit bottom of Group F, having yet to record a point in the tournament while scoring just one goal and conceding 15. If Ancelotti thinks his press conference will take the focus away from the subject of control at Stamford Bridge, however, he is mistaken.

The questions are still pertinent. How long can a man who has won the Champions League twice as a player and twice as a manager, plus won the domestic double in his first season in England, put up with interference which directly affects his ability to lead the team?

How much longer can he operate when some of the biggest decisions are being taken apparently without his knowledge or approval? It does not usually take long for successful men to tire of such a structure, especially as it seems owner Roman Abramovich has called time on big spending at the Bridge.

For now, however, Ancelotti battles on, bemusing many observers, and there is time and a transfer window to negotiate before Chelsea find themselves in February at the business end of the Champions League which remains the prize coveted most by Abramovich.

There is good reason to believe they will be joined in the knockout phase by Arsenal who lie top in Group H and can clinch their progress by beating Braga in Portugal tomorrow night. As for Wednesday, Manchester United are clear favourites at the top of Group C although their trip to face Rangers in Glasgow is subject to the intensity and unpredictability which comes with the so-called 'Battle of Britain.'

Which leaves Tottenham, and another potentially heady night at White Hart Lane against German side Werder Bremen. There is something uplifting about the manner in which manager Harry Redknapp has taken Tottenham from relegation candidates to mixing it with the big boys of Europe.

None more so than their most recent triumph, when they defeated European champions Inter Milan 3-1 with one of the great European performances from Gareth Bale. It was achieved by a team, a manager and a board seemingly in perfect harmony. Despite Chelsea's success and the manager's brave face, you could not blame Ancelotti for casting an envious glance in Redknapp's direction.



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