Preaching calm with survival on the line
Carlo Ancelotti may lose his job even if Chelsea pull off an unlikely escape act, writes Dion Fanning
L ife has taught Carlo Ancelotti to be calm but others might have lived his life and not absorbed the same lessons. If you have worked for Silvio Berlusconi, you might come to expect the unexpected but many would react to it differently than Carlo Ancelotti.
Roman Abramovich may lack Berlusconi's cartoonish preposterousness but he is as capricious. Chelsea's gift is to create the illusion that they are implementing a strategy when a lot of the time they are merely following a whim. If Ancelotti can negotiate those urgent desires and win at Old Trafford today, it will not only be a remarkable football story, it will be a tale of great human survival.
"It is in my nature to be calm, it is not because I have worked in Italy," Ancelotti said on Friday at Chelsea's Surrey training ground. "I was born in a family that was very quiet, very calm, it's in my nature."
Not all stories of survival end with survival and Ancelotti's future is uncertain no matter what happens this afternoon.
His story is not a human tragedy but it is human folly. A club like Chelsea can go 50 years without a league title and then expect that one should immediately follow another. If Chelsea win at Old Trafford, Ancelotti will have, domestically at least, done all that is expected of him. Even that might not prevent him being the victim of Abramovich's restlessness.
If Chelsea, as seems likely, fail to beat United today, then Abramovich can roll out his masterplan. With the oligarch, it seems success is never as rewarding as the anticipation of a different kind of success.
Ancelotti, just like every previous Chelsea manager, has failed in the Champions League and that is what has been noted by Abramovich.
Chelsea's exit from the Champions League may be the event that leads to his dismissal, even if the disruption to the Chelsea squad should lead Abramovich to dismiss himself.
On Friday, Ancelotti talked about the decisions he had to take about selection for the game today. There were, he said, plenty of players who deserved to play.
This time at Old Trafford, Ancelotti will probably decide Fernando Torres is not among them. Since United knocked Chelsea out of the Champions League, Chelsea have won four games in the league, three of them with Torres starting on the bench. He came on and scored against West Ham and that is the most he can probably hope for this afternoon.
Alex Ferguson said Torres was too expensive to drop for the Champions League game. Ancelotti could pick the side he regards as the strongest to make a point to the owner today.
In the search for a plausible explanation for Chelsea's recovery in the title race, their exit to United has been identified as the moment they decided to turn things around this season. "It was a great opportunity to show character," Ancelotti said. Last season's European exit to Inter was widely agreed to be the key moment. Chelsea beat United to the title by a point and beat United at Old Trafford with Wayne Rooney injured and watching while sneakily drinking a beer in an executive box.
Rooney's injury rather than any rallying cry within Stamford Bridge might have been the decisive factor in last season's title race. This year, like last year, has been marked by the absence of an outstanding side. If Chelsea win the title, they will do it with a maximum of 79 points. Mourinho's first title-winning team at Stamford Bridge ended with 95 points.
Ancelotti reflected on Friday about the heart and character of his side to recover when they had been written out of the title race by many. He was among them. In January, after drawing at home with Fulham, Ancelotti conceded that the then 12-point gap was "too much". Chelsea had taken ten points from 11 matches.
"During the bad moment, we were really frustrated, we had a lot of problems. We lost confidence in our play. The worst moment was when we lost away at Birmingham because we played really well. At that precise moment, we lost a lot of confidence and to come back without important players like Lampard, Essien and Drogba was more difficult."
Drogba is fresh now, Ancelotti says. He has recovered from malaria and has been aided by his enforced break. He is also keeping Torres out of the team and that seems to have inspired him.
Following the draw with Fulham, Chelsea beat Manchester United in a conveniently re-arranged home fixture and the revival, if it is a revival, had begun.
Chelsea have been unbeaten in the league since, climbing above Arsenal and moving close to United who were demonstrating their own weaknesses, even if these do not seem as fundamental as Chelsea's.
At United, the chain of command is clear. The Glazers might have drained money from the club, but Ferguson's personality overshadows everything. He won the battle to keep Rooney and the rehabilitation of United's most gifted and most driven player has been central. If his absence was key last season, his presence will be today.
Chelsea will hope that other weaknesses in United can be exposed as they search for the win that is probably required.
"Rooney and Chicharito are a fantastic combination," Ancelotti said, before stressing again that the game will not be won by tactics. "The game will be decided through the courage of the players," Ancelotti insisted on Friday.
The manager will have to show his own courage now, resisting the pressure to play Torres, whatever its source, and picking a side which knows how to beat Manchester United.
Chelsea know United's strength at home but they were also the last team to beat them there. The vulnerabilities of Ferguson's side are transparent on the road -- they have lost to three of the four other teams in the top five away from Old Trafford and drawn with the other. At Old Trafford, they have beaten them all. Chelsea is all that remains. In a one-off game, they may be able to forget the chaos of the season, the dismissal of Ray Wilkins-- Ancelotti had kind words for him again on Friday, but smiled when asked if he
would present his own medal to his friend -- and the confusion that Torres' arrival brought.
Ancelotti has managed all situations and threats to his authority with calmness, dignity and an honesty that has endeared him to most Chelsea supporters and to everyone outside the club.
On Friday, he was asked who was the best side in the league. "Chelsea," he said. Then he was asked why he said that. "Because I am the manager of Chelsea," he said with a smile, which told of his loyalty, not his arrogance. He will try and transmit his calm to the players. "One reason to stay calm is because we have to be clear what we are going to do on the pitch."
Ancelotti will need to be clear too. He is talking about the strength he has on the bench, another indication that Torres will be introduced at some point from there.
If Chelsea win, it will be an astonishing story of recovery.
The club could then create history by firing a manager who has just won the title. "In Italy, it has happened," Ancelotti says wryly. Ancelotti doesn't see this as the club's problem. "The problem now is not if I stay or if I go. The problem is to win on Sunday."
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