Burning bridges

With no hope of domestic glory, Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti is hoping Champions League success can save his job

When Ashley Cole missed his penalty against Everton in their FA Cup tie, the Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny asked on Twitter: “What do you think Ashley was aiming for? Is it an aeroplane? No, it’s just Ashley throwing Chelsea out of the FA Cup.” In fairness to Cole, it wasn’t the most misguided shot he took this month.

Chelsea’s season, much like their left-back’s life, seems to have crumbled beyond recognition. The Double winners won’t win any domestic silverware this year and are in a battle to make next season’s Champions League, a situation that concerns John Terry: “I have lost a little bit of sleep, it is stressful. It will be disastrous for the football club if we don’t qualify for the Champions League.” Andrew Dillon of the Sun was not so sympathetic: “Never mind Chelsea. There’s still the league – the Europa League.”

It is difficult to sympathise with Chelsea’s struggle, considering their methods of dealing with the so-called crisis. Instead of developing their young players and balancing their books, Roman Abramovich has again resorted to throwing some of his hard-earned fortune at the problem. Chelsea’s sporting director Frank Arnesen explained the rationale fairly clearly. According to Arnesen, relying on young players is the pastime of clubs that “don’t want to win trophies and be involved in the Champions League”.

The majority of Chelsea’s January spending went on Fernando Torres. The striker has never won a club medal and thought he was more likely to achieve success with a “bigger club” than Liverpool. Needless to say, Liverpool’s fans begged to differ. When the two clubs met at Stamford Bridge six days later, Torres was treated to some of the famous Scouse wit. With Chelsea trailing, Torres was reminded that he “should have stayed at a big club”, while a banner informed the home team that they had “paid £50 million for Margi Clarke”. The travelling fans seemingly wished to mock Torres with a cultural reference from an era in which Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool were likely to win trophies.

Torres, for all his quality, has not had the best of starts at Chelsea. According to the Telegraph‘s Henry Winter, he has resembled “a warrior without a sword or shield, an orienteer without a map, at times a little boy lost”. Lord Sugar suggested that Torres should “go blond again to bring him good luck. He used to score as a blond.” In his role as a News of the World columnist, Gary Lineker offered a more cogitative angle: “There is a fickle nuance in football called form. It comes and goes and no one really knows why.

With Torres struggling, Carlo Ancelotti faced a selection dilemma. Including his expensive new striker seems to require dropping one of Didier Drogba, last season’s top scorer, or Nicolas Anelka, his only in-form forward. Ancelotti tried playing all three against Liverpool, an idea that didn’t work for David Pleat: “Chelsea looked at sea trying to accommodate their big hitters up front.” Tony Cascarino, writing in the Times, was similarly unimpressed: “Accommodation is a word for hoteliers, not football managers.” Terry Venables, not famed for his accuracy with numbers, had an odd tactical insight: “I do not think just one player will be left out to accommodate Torres – I reckon there will be THREE.”

With Chelsea’s strikers failing to click, pressure has mounted on the likeable Ancelotti. The Express‘s Ian Ridley concluded that: “Poor Carlo Ancelotti is looking more hangdog by the game, more desperate, more often to slip outside for a cigarette. You have to have some sympathy for him.” Depending on which paper you read, Ancelotti will soon be replaced by José Mourinho, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten or Mark Hughes.

Ancelotti, however, has other ideas. Without domestic distractions, the Chelsea manager hopes he can repeat his achievement with AC Milan in 2007. His team finished 36 points behind Inter in Serie A, but went on to win the Champions League. If he fails, he can no doubt expect to leave west London with another wedge of his boss’s fortune.

From WSC 290 April 2011