Ferguson backs Ancelotti – and then buries him


Old Trafford

The programme notes are often a harbinger. Just as their tone softened towards Arsène Wenger as Arsenal's threat receded, so Sir Alex Ferguson sought to praise Carlo Ancelotti before he buried him yesterday. "What he has experienced in England seems particularly unfounded. He doesn't deserve to be questioned or his future queried in the way it has been this season," the Manchester United manager said.

Well, no-one could query Ancelotti's courage. The front row seats of the directors' box – occupied by Roman Abramovich's son Arkady; Chelsea chief executive Ron Gourlay; Bob Diamond – the Barclays chief executive who handed John Terry the Premier League trophy last May; and Bobby Campbell, ex-manager and Abramovich adviser – looked like the hanging jury it is, but the manager standing 50 yards in front of them revealed himself to be his own man, as he dispensed with the owner's striker Fernando Torres in favour of Didier Drogba.

David Luiz was Ancelotti's own man, too – the player the Chelsea manager lobbied to have when Abramovich was opening his chequebook in January – but it was he who quickly wrecked the Italian's best laid plans. Luiz will surely become a world-class player one day but the sight of £6m Javier Hernandez racing away from the fallen £21m Portuguese was a morality tale about the lack of certainty that follows the big money buys. They are now a decreasing part of United's landscape.

Ancelotti is not generally an expressive individual on the touchline but even he failed to contain the dismal sense of bewilderment and despair he felt at the sight of Hernandez – who said his prayers and heard them answered in the space of the game's first minute – racing onto Park Ji-sung's pass while Luiz sat prone on the pitch. Luiz, arms outstretched, retorted "Not me", to his manager, which crystallised the sense that Chelsea's players were hiding. It was the fastest league goal Chelsea have conceded since 2004.

Luiz is the player whose goal against United at Stamford Bridge 69 days ago had ended Chelsea 's four-month winter slump and fired the side into the unbeaten run which had taken them here. But he has also become a player Ancelotti knows is as likely to create defensive mayhem as a piece of magic. Chelsea's need of him reflects one of the critical miscalculations which Abramovich will now weigh up. Ricardo Carvalho, who has flourished at Real Madrid, should no more have been released than Michael Ballack, because Jeffrey Bruma was not ready to step into his shoes. If Luiz's error did not sum up Chelsea's need of a command force in central defence then the sight of Nemanja Vidic, the most dangerous aerial threat in the United side, powering through unhindered to thump home a header after Ryan Giggs had ghosted past Salamon Kalou, certainly did. Kalou was absent in every sense, incidentally. His pointed protest when he scored against Tottenham last week told Ancelotti: "Pick me" – so the Italian did so yesterday. All he saw was more maddeningly inconsistency and proof that Kalou's mere 15 league starts these past nine months do not constitute an injustice.

In fairness, it has been testament to Ancelotti's powers of motivation that Chelsea have made it back at all from 15 points adrift on 1 March, with a side also shorn of the peaks attained last season by Frank Lampard and Michael Essien – neither of whom overwhelmed a United midfield in a way some other sides have this season. "I want to say thank you to them because for two months we were the best team in the Premier League," Ancelotti said last night.

This, though, was the match that proved the considerable gulf between the nation's top two sides. There have been seven Chelsea wins out of eight since that Stamford Bridge victory over United but you need to appreciate the modest opposition – Blackpool, (an unambitious) Manchester City, Stoke City, Wigan Athletic, West Bromwich, Birmingham City, West Ham and Tottenham – to appreciate the points tally. Ferguson didn't change his formation from the two Champions League victories over Chelsea and the effect was much the same. For all the Abramovich money, Ancelotti still also lacked a right-back when it came down to it. Jose Bosingwa's knee injury has spared his game further close scrutiny but Branislav Ivanovic's big moment was fairly wretched yesterday.

Ancelotti made an impressively understated case for being around leading the re-build job, last night. "United played with more continuity through the season and played good football," he said. Continuity is a quality which comes with managerial longevity, though the prospects of Ancelotti being given allowance for one bad year – and of the tone of Ferguson 's programme notes revealing chillier relations with his favourite Italian manager – look slim indeed.


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