Sunday 15 December 2019

In the shadow of Jose

Chelsea's sense of entitlement has been undermined by a familiar presence, writes Dion Fanning

There was a time, Mourinho claimed after the game, when Abramovich thought it would be easy to win the Champions League
There was a time, Mourinho claimed after the game, when Abramovich thought it would be easy to win the Champions League

The Chelsea press officer, understanding how journalism works, wanted to clarify a few things at the end of Carlo Ancelotti's press conference on Friday.

"Just to be clear: Carlo said we will win the double if we win all our matches. He didn't say we would win all our matches. Secondly, Silvio Berlusconi was disappointed and angry when Milan went out to Coruna in 2004. Roman Abramovich was disappointed when we lost on Tuesday."

Carlo Ancelotti understands the difference between a master being angry and a master being angry and disappointed. Abramovich's Chelsea project was dismantled by Jose Mourinho last week and the mood of Abramovich and the state of Chelsea are linked again.

When Ancelotti arrived at Stamford Bridge last summer, he was the fourth man to follow Mourinho in two years, and he was, everyone was told, the man who knew how to win the European Cup. He appeared to know nothing on Tuesday night as Inter took apart his side.

Until they win the European Cup, Abramovich's plan for Chelsea will have failed. It will remain, as Mourinho said on Tuesday, "a history of frustration". There was a time, Mourinho claimed after the game, when Abramovich thought it would be easy to win the Champions League. "Because he is an intelligent person, he is not the same person he was a year ago."

Abramovich doesn't think it is easy now. It is unlikely he has any of the same thoughts about football. When he began to build Chelsea, they were going to use the European Cup to become the world's most famous club. The assault on the great institutions of the world would be achieved by using the tournament as a battering ram. The hostility of football's old world would be overcome and around the globe Abramovich would be seen as the man who produced another Real Madrid, a team the world loved. Instead, since Mourinho left, Chelsea have had to be satisfied with an FA Cup, "just an FA Cup," as he called it.

Chelsea have more to play for this season. Victories at Blackburn today and on Wednesday when they travel to Portsmouth would put them top of the Premier League, having played their game in hand. "We need to win," Ancelotti says.

A Premier League title would represent a triumphant season but Chelsea do not look like a side preparing to triumph. Abramovich may still be engaged but he is as frustrated as Chelsea's history. There is no longer the infatuation, the awe around footballers. Last month as the headlines about John Terry and Ashley Cole kept coming, Abramovich reminded the players of their responsibilities.

"Everyone involved in this club is interested in preserving the image of the club," Ancelotti said on Friday. The image that is preserved is not the one they imagine. Mourinho played his part in that, creating the conditions in which he could be described as "the enemy of football" and it would appear that the term had been coined for Chelsea.

Last season's harsh exit to Barcelona was met with an aggressive response in keeping with the feeling that Chelsea now expect to be rewarded and will behave badly when they are not. That feeling is reflected among the supporters. There were some knowledgeable Chelsea fans who were appalled when Wayne Bridge was booed on his return with Manchester City, but there were many who think that the boorish act is one they must affect.

'Fuck off, Mourinho,' they chanted at the most successful manager in their history at the end on Tuesday night but the chant was almost drowned out by the sound of thousands who had decided to leave the moment Didier Drogba was sent off storming towards the exit. Beating the traffic is part of the fabric of Chelsea football club.

Abramovich has not been able to change that and, while he has altered Chelsea's status in English football, without the European Cup, they remain a club of only passing interest on the world stage.

Mourinho knew he could damage his old club fundamentally last Tuesday. He has not turned Inter into a great side or become a cavalier coach. Manchester City had demolished Chelsea and Mourinho observed what happened when they were forced to run. With a goal lead, Inter could afford to take risks, especially as it was assumed that another strong English club would overwhelm a faded Italian side. Mourinho had nothing to lose and a lot to prove.

His side whispered his genius on Tuesday night and tore at Chelsea. Mourinho knew his opponent and he had noted their recent vulnerability. Once Inter had the ball, Chelsea lacked the drive to win it back or the wit to keep it.

His show of respect for Chelsea before, during and after the game was another great performance. When he came to sit quietly in the away dug-out before the match, the cameras did not leave him. Mourinho seemed entirely comfortable and in repose during this photo-op.

Before the game, Ray Wilkins, Ancelotti's only non-Italian assistant, came over and shook Mourinho's hand before returning to Ancelotti's side where he gave his manager a comforting pat.

While Wilkins would later engage the Inter bench in some abusive banter, Mourinho remained relaxed. He joked with his lieutenants and rarely engaged with the officials. He never looked towards the Chelsea bench. In contrast, Ancelotti always seemed to be aware of Mourinho's presence. Ancelotti is an aristocrat of football and has a history with Mourinho of disdain.

Mourinho's talent has always been to warn these people -- the gilded managers with illustrious playing careers -- that he is coming and enjoys that they can do nothing about it. On Tuesday night, Ancelotti was helpless once more. In contrast, Mourinho, even at his most demonstratively restrained, had his players working as one organism.

After Samuel Eto'o's goal, Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti came to the touchline during a break in play. Mourinho was preparing a substitution and Zanetti took some orders from the manager. The players listened and then returned to the field. Cambiasso thought of something, turned around, went back to the manager and started bellowing at Mourinho.

He wasn't panicking, he wasn't in revolt, he just had a clear idea of what was going on and he wanted to share it with Mourinho. His message seemed simple: we're in control, don't change anything. This game is ours. On the bench, Mourinho listened and put out his hands to gesture that he understood. He would be led by his players at this moment as willingly as they were led by him.

Ancelotti, by contrast, waited and waited. The players seemed to have no more to give and his substitutions only made things worse.

At the end, Mourinho was already down the tunnel, confusing Wilkins who had quickly made his way over to the Inter dug-out for a post-match handshake. Wilkins looked around, wondering where Mourinho was but Mourinho had wrong-footed him.

He wasn't the only one. Abramovich was disappointed but not angry and Ancelotti has experience of managing a megalomaniac's expectations.He dealt with Berlusconi's frustrations for eight years and he will hope that Abramovich has become as tolerant.

For Mourinho to have ended the ambitions for a side and revealed them to be stale and weary was a triumph for a man who was fired for being an egomaniac who played boring football.

These were the things Ancelotti was supposed to change. "We wanted to play a different game but we were not able," he said. Once more, Abramovich's desire for a more expansive style of football which partly prompted his decision to fire Mourinho has proved to be worthless as a means of success.

This joyous, expressive football was also demanded of Phil Scolari and Avram Grant. Ancelotti ended the week talking up the double and saying he was certain he would be manager next season.

He may be right but in previous years the power of the players would be enforced right about now. This year, some like John Terry are in reduced circumstances while others like Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard are the players who faded so quickly as Inter set among them.

By the end of the week, it was being reported that Abramovich was ready to spend extravagantly again to rebuild the squad and win the European Cup. This is where he came in but now he is, as Mourinho points out, a changed man.

Mourinho changed Abramovich and wore him down. Ancelotti is more comfortable humouring powerful men and he may be able to persuade Abramovich to invest as extensively as he used to do.

If you were not aware of his blue-blooded pedigree, you could be forgiven for forming the impression that, with his woolly jumper and avuncular style, Ancelotti is a woodwork teacher from Ballyhaunis.

But he has found a way to make his style work in some of Italy's great clubs, particularly Milan. Chelsea will want more than the FA Cup if he is to be viewed as a success in England.

There is something preposterous in asking a man who managed AC Milan if he thinks the Chelsea team is too old. "I don't think this team is old. I won a Champions League with players who were 39 years old. I think a player who is 30 is in the middle of his career. Because he improve the physical aspect, he improve the prevention. When you have a team with an average of 28, it is a very good age. This is not a problem."

Ancelotti allowed the Milan side to grow old in a league that was not dynamic. It may not be as successful in England where the pace drains the players and reduces their effectiveness. Ancelotti says they are still eager to win things.

"I think the players were very disappointed, like me, like Roman, like the fans. These are good things because it is the first step towards finding new motivation for the rest of the season." Nothing else concerns him. "Why do we need to speak about the future when we have 11 important games to come?"

Ancelotti can still see a way to success this season but the recent signs are not encouraging. Then comes the summer and the almost traditional period of turmoil at Chelsea.

Only one manager since Mourinho has not had that feeling of impending doom. Guus Hiddink said he was leaving all along and that made them want him even more. Chelsea find it hard to sustain a relationship with anyone who wants to sustain a relationship.

On Tuesday night, Ancelotti met the press before Mourinho. Even in defeat at his home ground, he was a warm-up act. Yet he must go on after him, must find purpose for a club which increasingly looks like it only had one under Mourinho.

Jerry Lee Lewis once suffered what he considered the ignominy of opening for Chuck Berry. Using his fervent mixture of the devil's tunes and biblical fervour, he drove the crowd and himself into a spiritual yet sinful frenzy. As his set concluded, he doused his piano with petrol, threw a match and watched it go up in flames. He walked off with his message delivered. In the wings he encountered Chuck Berry who was waiting to go on. "Follow that," he said.

Jose Mourinho delivered the same message. Chelsea are still trying to follow him and the frustration has become all-consuming.

Blackburn v Chelsea,

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