Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea future teetering on the edge

When Carlo Ancelotti arrived at Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2009 he was charged with being the man that would finally deliver the Champions League – the one trophy Roman Abramovich is desperate to get his hands on. Ancelotti was seen as a master of the Champions League, having taken his Milan side to three finals in five years, winning two of them. Abramovich also wanted his side to move away from the style of football which has been built into the Chelsea team since Jose Mourinho’s tenure, expecting the side to offer a far more pleasing-on-the-eye spectacle than the efficient, tactical mastery the team had become.

As Ancelotti nears the end of his second season at the helm, has he delivered on what his ruthless boss sought? The short answer is no. If Ancelotti was brought in to conquer Europe, he has come up horribly short. Last season Chelsea were outplayed and outfought by the Mourinho-led Inter team in the last 16, while this term they were second best to Manchester United in the quarter-finals. What’s more, Ancelotti has been found wanting tactically in both Chelsea’s European eliminations under him. Mourinho’s Inter made Chelsea – a free-scoring machine domestically – look toothless going forward, cutting the Blues’ attacking full-backs off at source with the use of Goran Pandev and Samuel Eto’o out wide, to which Ancelotti had no answer. The physical specimen that is Didier Drogba was made to look lightweight by the brutality of Walter Samuel and Lucio, resulting in the Ivorian going into sulk-mode, rather flicking the unplayable switch. This season Ancelotti went with the out-of-form Fernando Torres and Drogba up top in the home leg against United, only for his side to be completely outnumbered and dominated in midfield, allowing United control of the game. His decision to play Torres over Drogba in the second-leg was also baffling considering the Spaniard’s form, and another anonymous showing from the former Liverpool man, followed by an all-action, goalscoring performance from his half-time replacement Drogba, made his decision look all the more questionable.

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Bowing out in such meek circumstances simply is not good enough for Chelsea, especially when compared to the previous five seasons, where the side reached three semi-finals and a final. They could hardly have come closer in the three years prior to Ancelotti’s appointment – losing out to a last minute Andres Iniesta goal in the 2008/09 semi-finals to go out on aggregate. 2007/08 was the final loss on penalties and 2006/07 was another penalties defeat, in the semi-finals this time. So, on paper, the side has gone backwards in Europe since Ancelotti, which, when considering this is the club’s priority competition, does not bode well for the Italian.

Ancelotti can at least call upon a very good domestic record. In his first season at Stamford Bridge he enjoyed instant success, winning the Double while playing some sumptuous football in the process. The Italian had Chelsea playing a brand of football unseen during Abramovich’s rein, as Blues fans got to enjoy some fluid pass and move football. Not only that, but Ancelotti rid the club of settling for a lead and seeing a game out, instead pushing the side to score more goals, resulting in some heavy scorelines in their favour. Indeed, Chelsea finished the Premier League campaign scoring a staggering 103 goals – 35 more than they scored the previous season and 31 more than the 72 they scored in both of the seasons they won the league under Mourinho. Not only had Ancelotti brought United’s three-year Premier League dominance to an end, he had done it in style – all in his first season.

However, this season has been one the Chelsea hierarchy cannot be happy with. The side started the campaign with five emphatic victories and many pundits already believed they would romp to another title. However, their form tailed off drastically following the dismissal of assistant coach Ray Wilkins on November 11, which started a six-game winless Premier League run and an altogether calamitous run of form which only picked up in mid-January. It is difficult to say just how important Wilkins was, even if the results did decline in the aftermath of his dismissal. It could be mere coincidence, or there could have been deeper problems behind the scenes with Wilkins the face the media pinned the unrest on. Wilkins is highly-respected in English football – but not necessarily for his coaching skills, as his experience and record is altogether modest on that front. The loss of Wilkins has been seen as a hugely detrimental one to Chelsea’s fortunes this season, but it is just as likely that he has merely deflected attention from failing parts of the setup elsewhere.

One of those areas which is perhaps to blame for why the team is not hitting the high standards it has set itself in recent years is the age of the squad. When Mourinho came in during the summer of 2004, he built a side heavy on experience and resolve for big game situations. However, the squad is now getting to the point where many of their talismanic players are past their peak years and cannot quite have the effect they have done in the past. Frank Lampard, for example, has been almost completely injury free during his entire career, but it may be catching up with him now, at the age of 32, as he suffered a lengthy lay-off this term and has been able to recreate his outstanding form of the past six years or so. Didier Drogba, a year Lampard’s senior and of similar importance to the side, scored 29 league goals last term, but stands at just 12 this season with two games remaining.

Looking at Chelsea’s most recent encounter, the Premier League title decider at Old Trafford, of the 14 players Ancelotti used on the day, six were 30 or older. Drogba and Lampard were two of these, with Nicolas Anelka, Ashley Cole, John Terry and Florent Malouda the other four – all of which were integral to the side last year, and some for many years previously. It is a problem which the club seem well in tune with, as they spent heavily on Fernando Torres and David Luiz in January – who at 27 and 24 respectively, could well prove to be the start of what will become an overhaul of the squad in the next couple of years. The likes of Yury Zhirkov and Ramires were brought in the previous two summer transfer windows, but both have struggled to make an impact at the club. Zhirkov has been hampered by injury, while Ramires has overcome an unconvincing start to show signs of his potential.

Ancelotti will await the verdict on his future once the season is out. Abramovich is not known for his compassion when it comes to his managers and with the Russian having as many good reasons to sack him as he does to keep him, the Italian will do well to still be in the job come August. If Ancelotti’s first season in charge does save him the chop, he will be under pressure to deliver next season, especially in Europe.

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