Wednesday 21 March 2018

Ancelotti battles with ringside nerves as Blues edge towards final bell

Henry Winter

This has been a heavyweight title fight with no low blows. As this memorable Premier League duel moves into the final two rounds, with a decision even possible tomorrow, it says everything about Carlo Ancelotti's equable nature that Alex Ferguson has not once sought to lay a glove on the Chelsea manager. Knowing the Italian will not bite, Ferguson eschews his usual mind games.

The fireworks are back in the box. There's been neither sight nor sound of the tactics unleashed on a "disturbed'' Rafael Benitez or the greeting to Arsene Wenger of "what does he know -- he's just come from Japan?'' There have been no "bottle'' digs that lit Kevin Keegan's fuse nor a "Devon Loch'' jibe to Kenny Dalglish, who had the blinkers on anyway.

Govan's finest has not gone all mellow, suddenly turning into a match-day peacenik. Even if Ferguson set a trap under a chunk of Ancelotti's favourite Parmesan the Italian would not be lured. The AC Milan legend rises effortlessly above such ruses, feeling the security of his playing pedigree, yet the coach seeking to dethrone Ferguson is undoubtedly a man of two halves.

As the minutes tick down, Chelsea's manager becomes so riddled with nerves that he removes himself from the dressing-room, keen that his players are not infected with his butterflies, often looking for a quiet corner to sneak a crafty fag.

Wherever he goes inside Anfield, Ancelotti risks encountering an image guaranteed to send his pulse racing further. Pictures abound of Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Benitez holding the European Cup in Istanbul with assorted members of Ancelotti's old Milan team strewn around in the background.

Maybe this mix of composure and nerves helps make Ancelotti such a successful coach. Unlike Jose Mourinho, the coach all Chelsea managers must live up to, Ancelotti would never play the egotist, never dream of throwing himself between players and limelight. Unlike Ancelotti, Mourinho is the model of belief before kick-off, his swagger instilling supreme confidence in players.

It is hard to imagine Ancelotti setting off the sprinklers at the Nou Camp yet he understood Mourinho's midweek gambol across Barcelona's greensward. "When I won the Champions League at Manchester United (in 2003), I ran on to the pitch after Shevchenko's penalty like Jose did,'' smiled Ancelotti yesterday. "But I won't do that on Sunday. I'm not able to run now. I'd risk injury!''

Ancelotti's regular self-deprecation is one of his many appealing characteristics. He knows exactly the team talk he will give tomorrow. "I'm going to say the opposite to what I said before the Tottenham game,'' Ancelotti remarked, referring to Chelsea's sluggish start to the 2-1 defeat.

One of football's good guys, the Italian is a principled man who cannot hide his distaste for mind games. "I'm not able to do mind games. I prefer to stay focused with my players, preparing them well tactically, technically, physically. My job is to control the pressure.''

Reminders of past pressures will be all around at Anfield. He will struggle to find many pictures of Liverpool losing to his Milan in 2007 but he will see the European Cup given to Liverpool by Uefa after Istanbul for winning the trophy for a fifth time. He will also see Benitez, his nemesis by the Bosporus, in the home dugout.

"Benitez is one of the most important coaches,'' said Ancelotti when talk turned to the Spaniard possibly leaving. "Maybe Juventus will think to bring him to Turin. His teams are tactically very, very good and so, in Italy, he would not have a problem. But why must I speak about Juventus -- you want me to be nervous?'' There he goes again. The nerves. Perhaps triggering more beads of sweat.

If Ancelotti and Chelsea do keep their nerve, as they should, the manager will doubtless receive a congratulatory letter from Ferguson, still driven at 68. "I'm not surprised by Alex,'' he said. "I feel that same passion for football.''

A passion play without rancour, a title fight without bad blood, moves to a climax. Ancelotti, nervy but nice, has the edge. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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