Wednesday 21 March 2018

Fighting for their future

Carlo Ancelotti has upped the ante as he tries to save his job and Chelsea's season, writes Dion Fanning

'Drogba is not fit 100 per cent. He had malaria. That is one reason. Maybe we are too slow from the back and when we arrive in front we cannot find the space. This is another reason' Photo: Getty Images
'Drogba is not fit 100 per cent. He had malaria. That is one reason. Maybe we are too slow from the back and when we arrive in front we cannot find the space. This is another reason' Photo: Getty Images

Dion Fanning

Carlo Ancelotti has made no attempt to hide Chelsea's problems. Today at White Hart Lane, the league champions begin a series of matches that could end his time as manager and Ancelotti wants to stress their importance.

There has been something impressive about Ancelotti and his public anxiety during Chelsea's problem. He's not sleeping well, he says; he's worried, he confesses. Now he wants a statement. "Now is a time for action," he says. Ancelotti is going against character.

"I am happy to play against Tottenham, to play against Manchester United, to play against Arsenal. Sometimes in your life you have to bet, you can't stay always in-between. Now we have to take a risk. I am happy to play against Tottenham because it is a tough game."

Ancelotti has raised the stakes while simultaneously staying calm. He is insulting nobody's intelligence by pretending he has the answers or by insisting things aren't too bad. "We don't have to be upset if people say we are in crisis. We haven't done what people expected us to do so it is normal for people to say we are in crisis."

Yet he doesn't believe that a state of anxiety helps. "I'm not scared. You cannot have fear if you want to use your ability."

Roman Abramovich frightens people. Now he is said to be circling, bored of something, restless for change, telling Ancelotti he understands and trusts him which should help but doesn't. How much longer the trust lasts remains to be seen.

Ancelotti says he will explain to his boss after every game about the changes he made and why. He starts off by saying it is something he likes to do but ends by describing it as a "duty". He has worked for Silvio Berlusconi too so he understands that the compassion of powerful men is dependent on emphasising they have the power.

"He never asks me to change something. He knows very well how I manage the team and I think he is happy for this."

So Ancelotti does his duty and still it may not be enough. Chelsea look listless and drained on the field. They are anaemic in midfield and suddenly barren in attack. Ancelotti has lots of answers for this.

"Drogba is not fit 100 per cent. He had malaria. That is one reason. Maybe we are too slow from the back and when we arrive in front we cannot find the space. This is another reason. Also if we look at the game against Birmingham, we had ten or 11 chances to score. This is the third reason: we need to be more focused when we shoot."

After last week's draw at Everton, Ancelotti provided another reason: Chelsea were playing too much long ball. So they play too slow and can't find space, too many long balls which aren't slow and create plenty of chances but aren't focused enough to finish them. There is no sense to this and Ancelotti privately must know that something more fundamental is being revealed.

First there is Abramovich's restlessness. Ray Wilkins is not missed but his dismissal was a reminder of the owner's capriciousness. "Ray is my friend," Ancelotti says. "The problem is not because Ray is not here, it is because we have a lot of problems."

Also, the squad has been allowed to age and there are no replacements for the men who led the club with Mourinho. Without Frank Lampard, Ancelotti has looked to players like Ramires and Jon Obi Mikel and that won't work. Michael Essien has been fitful and suspended for much of Chelsea's bad spell.

Ultimately, as it all does at Chelsea, everything comes back to Abramovich. He is not going to spend as he once did. Chelsea are talking about spending in January but that, as Ancelotti conceded on Friday, is a long way away. Abramovich also appears to be thinking differently. Just as he was seduced into football by watching Real Madrid at Old Trafford, he is now looking at Barcelona and thinking he could have that. He could have it all.

Pep Guardiola has been mentioned, as if his arrival will allow Chelsea to play like Barcelona and to uncover Messi and Iniesta when the idea that somebody planned for them is fanciful in the first place. Barcelona's development of players is exceptional but there is no evidence that it is not a golden age or that Guardiola could do it again at a club like Chelsea. Abramovich wants to be seduced again.

These are the stories Ancelotti has to endure. Today he has to visit White Hart Lane, a game he is gambling on. He is also truly concerned about Tottenham or throwing some sugar their way. Gareth Bale, he says, is "uncontrollable" and gives a little laugh. "He's so quick. Who wants to think about Bale now? You could lose your mind. I am happy to play against Bale. I don't know how happy Ferreira is to play against Bale."

Ferreira will be spooked. Ancelotti may have spoken about the reassurances he received from Abramovich but there will be panic again if Chelsea lose this afternoon.

This is a time, he says, when a manager and a team must be motivated. He believes his team have been motivated by their position which suggests they weren't when they were brushing teams aside at the beginning of the season.

"You can use moments like this to improve your relationships if you stay together. We will be better in the future if we do this. This is a good moment for us to fight for the season."

He relaxes, he says, by watching football. He doesn't believe a manager should spend every minute trying to fix problems, he believes, are rooted in the training ground. It could be that the players know something he doesn't or at least sense it. They have seen Abramovich cool before and they may feel the same thing is happening with a manager who won the title last season.

Chelsea may have been lucky then. Winning by a point from an average Manchester United side does not suggest overpowering strength. The players still have character but they are fading. Drogba has malaria, Terry is lame and Lampard is missing. Ancelotti must deal with the rest. He has tried to do it the way he believes. "I'm not angry with the players, but I'm not happy. It's not my character to be angry with the players. If you shout every time, nobody listens."

Have you shouted this month? A deep chuckle emerges, "more than once".

Ancelotti will stay calm. Most of the time.

"My behaviour is always to stay focused on the job. I say to my players this is not the time to think about everything. We must stay focused. We are doing things wrong on the pitch. We are not good in defence and we are not good enough in possession. We have to train to improve this. This is my way to deal with stress."

There is nothing exciting about it. Ancelotti remembers the Italian solution, the "concentration" when the team would be taken away to a training camp for days. The way he shakes his head when he recalls it, he makes them sound like months.

He won't be doing this or reverting to any English versions of team-bonding. Ancelotti gives a version of management which is about permanence in a uncertain world. He preaches stability and restraint. He is trying to be sensible. That's a very dangerous racket.

Tottenham v Chelsea,

Sky Sports 1, 4.0

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