Thursday 14 November 2019

Abramovich aims to replicate Old Trafford template

Jason Burt

When Roman Abramovich acquired Chelsea in the summer of 2003 - as he sat quietly sipping water at a corner table in the Dorchester Hotel while then chairman Ken Bates held court - the Champions League was not his Holy Grail. But it has become so.

Then it was just another trophy to win after Abramovich had fulfilled his wish of buying a football club. And winning is why he is in it. The enjoyment is in the success more than the sport; he wants to be the best and the best rule not just the Premier League but Europe too. Three league titles are good; no European trophy is unacceptable. He wants it all.

So much of this ambition is intertwined with Manchester United. It was watching United win 4-3, but still be knocked out by Real Madrid, in a thriller at Old Trafford just months before he bought Chelsea, that Abramovich had his first taste of the competition. It prompted him, in one of his rare public utterances, to talk of a "truly beautiful game", and it was an occasion that resonates still.


United stand in Chelsea's way again this season, just as they did in the 2008 Champions League final, which proved to be a bitter, sodden evening for Abramovich -- and in Moscow of all places. Those who saw him afterwards said he took defeat well enough but was a picture of frustration -- just as he was when Chelsea lost in the semi-final in his first season as owner, crashing out to Monaco.

At times Abramovich gives the impression he feels circumstances are conspiring against him -- a product, perhaps, of his Russian background. It is always someone else's fault, and that someone else can be the authorities, officials, players and, more often than not, the manager. It may be the only rational explanation as to why he has made so many changes and why he can intervene so dramatically.

He also cannot help getting involved, and one of the fascinating things this season -- with sporting director Frank Arnesen leaving, Ray Wilkins being sacked, and manager Carlo Ancelotti's future in doubt -- has been seeing the owner involve himself more directly with first-team affairs again.

Abramovich has often been at his angriest after Champions League setbacks -- Jose Mourinho was cast aside after a soulless draw at home to Rosenborg in front of just 25,000 fans, Avram Grant sacked after Moscow and Ancelotti felt the billionaire's wrath following the exit last season to Inter Milan. His assistant, Wilkins, stood up to Abramovich and paid the price.

It is often remarked that Abramovich wants Chelsea to become the new Barcelona. But the team he really wants to emulate is closer to home. It is United. The decision this season to promote five Academy players was an attempt to ape what Ferguson did in the 1990s.

It hasn't worked, not yet anyway, and Abramovich reacted as he often does -- dramatically. Chelsea went from a policy of trying not to spend to splashing out £75m on two players in the January transfer window, and just as United began to fish more in the South American market, so Chelsea signed Brazilian teenage prospect Lucas Piazon.

United were among 10 clubs Abramovich considered before buying Chelsea. He settled on them because they were readily available, and affordable at £140m including debt, and close to his Knightsbridge home and Battersea heliport. It was as casual as that. And as sudden.

Abramovich has shown he can simply wake up one morning and decide he wants to make major changes. In his meetings with Ancelotti before making him manager, Abramovich bemoaned the lack of "personality" at Chelsea.

But the owner is largely to blame for that. Because it is always someone else's fault, that someone often is blamed. Be it the manager or the players. "No one knows if they are going to be there long," the associate added.

The employment of Ancelotti was symbolic, as was landing Mourinho within hours of his Porto side winning the Champions League, and Peter Kenyon's arrival as chief executive from United.

Ancelotti has spoken about it being Chelsea's "destiny" to win the competition. If it does not happen this season, then it would be no surprise to again see dramatic changes made. It's Roman's way, as he searches for that Holy Grail. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

The Left Wing: Champions Cup preview, the World Cup hangover and Joe Schmidt's next team

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport