ANCELOTTI NEEDS TO TURN THE TIDE, QUICKLY

Carlo Ancelotti and Chelsea Football Club were rowing merrily along. Suddenly they found themselves flapping in the water when captain John Terry hit both the front and back headlines. Jose Mourinho in his big, blue and black Barco then proceeded to knock the Blues’ boat bang out of European waters. In the Straits that lead to the Isles of Domestic Success, Sam Allardyce then turned up and plonked his Blue and white Blackburn barge right between Chelsea and the open waters ahead. Now, Chelsea could well be up the creek.

After six months of relative peace and quiet, the Blues’ Italian manager had nothing to complain or even be mildly upset about. Although his team had been dumped out of the Carling Cup at the quarter final stage at Ewood Park, Chelsea were still in the FA Cup and they had dominated a Champions League group, which had included Porto and Athletico Madrid. Furthermore, they were sitting pretty at the top of the Barclays Premier League.

Then on 30th January, it was announced that a court gagging order had been lifted on a news item concerning the England captain John Terry. The revelations concerning the talismanic centre-back and his affair with the girlfriend of ex-teammate Wayne Bridge, provoked outrage and signalled the end of Ancelotti’s relatively peaceful and incident-free introduction into English football.

Despite the gossip and the constant fielding of questions completely unrelated to football, Ancelotti guided his men to a 2-1 victory away at Turf Moor just three days after news of Terrygate first emerged. This was followed by a 1-1 draw away at Hull and a Didier Drogba-inspired 2-0 win at home to fellow title challengers Arsenal. The mood around the Bridge looked to have lifted. The worry concerning John Terry seemed to have faded and Blues fans were looking ahead once more.

Cracks appeared however in Chelsea’s next game away at Everton after the Merseysiders came from one down to steal a 2-1 win. Although this loss was followed by wins against Cardiff in the FA Cup and then Wolves, Chelsea’s successful season seemed to be beginning to decrease in momentum; their train was being pulled off-track by incidents both on and off the pitch. More allegations came out again regarding Terry and tours behind-the-scenes in exchange for benefits and all those around Chelsea Football Club knew that this was not what was needed in the run-up to the return of the Champions League.

Wayne Bridge quit the English national team, on the grounds that he felt his position in the squad, alongside John Terry, was ‘untenable’. Cue Terry’s thrust back into the limelight.Then, when they needed it least, their date with their own club’s most successful ever manager Jose Mourinho, arrived.

The build up to the first leg of the last-32 Champions League match between Internazionale and Chelsea was dominated by the often-outspoken and feisty Portugese manager and the wonderful relationship he had forged with his double title-winning squad. Frank Lampard and John Terry both spoke of their affection for Mourinho, the man under which their games truly flourished and the tie was the talk of the footballing World. Funnily enough however, Inter were never really backed; the general consensus was that Chelsea would be far too strong for Mourinho’s Italian champions.

Fast forward twenty-five days. Chelsea are now third in the Premier League and they are out of Europe.

What happened? Firstly, Inter proved to be a much-improved team from the one that struggled in Europe in the 2008/2009 season. Out of the gaze of the British media, Mourinho had been busy over the summer chipping away at I Nerazzurri and the new-look attack of Eto’o, Pandev, Milito and Schneijder was just too good for Chelsea. Secondly, in the Premiership, the Blues lost at home to Manchester City after possibly the most famous handshake-that-never-was in the history of handshakes and earlier today, El-Hadj Diouf’s 67th minute goal at Ewood Park consigned Chelsea to a 1-1 draw. Ten out of a possible-eighteen points in their last six Premiership matches has resulted in Manchester United gazumping them of top spot and  Arsenal catching up and over-taking them into second spot.

Chelsea need to rediscover their early-season form if they want to occupy first place in the Premiership table come the final day of the season, and they need to do it quickly.

Carlo Ancelotti will be concerned that his captain John Terry seems to have made more mistakes in the past two months than he has made in his entire career. He will be concerned too about having to field an inexperienced Ross Turnbull in goal. As if to add to the Italian’s growing list of problems, Nicolas Anelka has not found the net since the end of January. Were Didier Drogba to get injured, Chelsea’s title challenge would quite simply come unstuck.

Roman Abramovich hired Ancelotti because the Italian had won the Champions League twice and the Russian oligarch wanted that big silver cup in the Stamford Bridge trophy cabinet. Interestingly however, Ancelotti had only won Serie A once as a coach before joining the Blues despite being in charge of both AC Milan and Juventus. To have won twice as many European Cups than national championships, is a bizarre phenomenon.

Chelsea must face, amongst others, Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham and Aston Villa in the final eight games of the season and the pressure is well and truly on Carlo Ancelotti to deliver the Premiership to West London, now that the Blues are out of the Champions League. They have harder ‘run-ins’ than both Arsenal and Manchester United and have a trip to Wembley coming up soon. Ancelotti may appear laid back, but he has been in football long enough to know that a defeat to Aston Villa in the semi-final of the FA Cup and a third-place finish in the Premiership, added to an exit from the Champions League at the last-32 stage to a team managed by somebody who – despite winning the Premiership twice – had been seen fit for the sack by Abramovich, could well put his future as Chelsea boss in jeopardy.

In thirteen years of management Chelsea’s Italian manager has only won one domestic championship; if he wants to make that two, his team need to win week-in, week-out between now and 9th May. The Blues have slipped, no question and they face a difficult final six weeks. Thankfully for Ancelotti, he next takes his team to Portsmouth on Wednesday night and where better, than this famous naval city, to get the masts up, catch the wind and get the big blue Chelsea boat firmly back on course?

By Ross A. Fox

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