Thin and ageing squad catches up with Ancelotti

Chelsea 1 Everton 1 (Everton win 4-3 on penalties): Chelsea's problems stretch back to November and show no sign of abating after a sorry FA Cup defeat
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Six-nil, six-nil, two-nil. That reads like the start of a demolition job in tennis, of someone on their way to a three-set victory. For Carlo Ancelotti those numbers represent Chelsea's first three results in the Premier League this season. Right now, with his club's title challenge in tatters and their exit at the weekend from the FA Cup, he can probably scarcely believe it is the same campaign.

Yet by the end of August people were already talking – and getting carried away, it must be said – about the west London side romping away to a fourth Premier League title. Big wins also followed against West Ham and Blackpool. However, five months later that three-set victory, that league triumph, which seemed so inevitable, is looking more like defeat in the fifth for the Italian. And without even forcing a tie-break.

Ancelotti admitted on Saturday, in the wake of the FA Cup holders' defeat on penalties to Everton, that he knows there have been problems since November, specifically the Birmingham game, when they lost 1-0 at St Andrew's.

Maybe it was his memory playing tricks, but that Birmingham defeat was Chelsea's third loss in the space of four games. There was already evidence that all was not well. At the start of November they lost 2-0 at Liverpool – Roy Hodgson's Liverpool, remember – and then came the insipid 3-0 home defeat to Sunderland, easily the Blues' worst performance since Ancelotti arrived at Stamford Bridge in July 2009.

Losing to Lee Bowyer's goal six days later merely confirmed the impression of the previous fortnight. It was a slump that turned into a title collapse as it was five more league games before they would win again. They are now two points outside fourth place and Champions League qualification.

Progress in the Champions League in the autumn was serene but they were having to get by without Frank Lampard, absent for four months, while John Terry was out for the Sunderland and Birmingham games.

Those two are back and what is more they have Fernando Torres to call on. But while Chelsea appear, for the moment, to have created their own problem in trying to marry the £50m signing with Didier Drogba, their current concerns pre-date the Spaniard's arrival.

Roman Abramovich decided to dig deep for Torres but for the best part of three years that has not been his way. Having invested so heavily between 2003 and 2006, which resulted in two league titles, the Russian put the brakes on. Stung by his lack of return on his £30m investment in Andriy Shevchenko, it was almost as if he finally realised the league could not always be won by cheque book alone.

The theory was that, at the same time as the spending freeze, Frank Arnesen, as sporting director, would oversee a youth team whose graduates would work their way into the first-team. But four years later, that has not happened – if you discount the rarely tested Josh McEachran. There has certainly been no equivalent of Jack Wilshere to carry Ancelotti's confidence.

All the while, the likes of Lampard, Terry and Drogba ploughed on, unchallenged in their grip on the first-team. But Drogba is almost 33 and Lampard is 32. Terry is the youngest of the trio but his back has been creaking for two years and he is 30.

Critically, last summer, Ancelotti, and by direct implication, Abramovich, allowed an ageing squad to become a thin one. Michael Ballack, considered important enough to start last season's FA Cup final, was let go, as were Joe Cole, Deco and Juliano Belletti. On their own, they were considered fringe players. Yet, taken as a whole, they could come in at any given moment and lend their considerable experience.

Having pollarded the squad, like some ageing oak, Ancelotti perhaps realised last season's Double was achieved despite, not because of, what was at his disposal. They only won the league by one point. In came Ramires, who was mainly a substitute in Brazil's poor World Cup campaign, who has looked neither like the next Michael Essien nor the next Lampard, while Yossi Benayoun was struck with a bad injury almost immediately.

Yet then came that bulldozing start to this season although Ancelotti, while he never said so, is too shrewd not to have feared there were problems waiting to happen. By November Chelsea had become more 2CV than JCB.

For David Moyes and Everton the manager is hoping the victory can lift their stuttering season. "To be through in the Cup gives you a great boost," he said. "If you put out the team who are the holders and the champions, you've got to think that you've got a good chance to win it. Obviously, it's been a tough place to come over the years. But Chelsea haven't enjoyed games against us lately because they have been tight."



Scorers: Chelsea Lampard 104. Everton Baines 119. Subs: Chelsea Essien 5 (Mikel, h/t), Anelka 6 (Malouda, 91), Zhirkov 5 (Kalou, 111). Everton Bilyaletdinov 6 (Cahill, 70), Anichebe 5 (Beckford, 80), Heitinga 6 (Osman, 95). Booked: Chelsea Ramires, Malouda, Terry. Everton Baines, Distin, Coleman, Arteta. Man of the match Baines. Match rating 7/10.

Attempts on target Chelsea 6 Everton 5. Referee P Dowd (Staffs). Att 41,113.

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