James Lawton: Abramovich's meddling is increasing Chelsea's woes – Ancelotti deserves better
If the Champions League is won, we can only hope that someone has the nerve to tell Abramovichit happened in spite of and not because of him
Tuesday 22 February 2011
As Carlo Ancelotti fights for his life as manager of Chelsea in a below zero Copenhagen tonight he can at least warm his hands on two realities.
One is that he is sitting on a watertight contract that could keep him – if he desired it more than re-employment by a football club prepared to grant him respect more in keeping with his record – in comfortable retirement for the rest of his life.
The other is that if things go as they increasingly suggest they will, he will at least have, along with the consolation of a fine wine cellar, the certainty that there came a point in the ownership of Chelsea by Roman Abramovich when it did not really matter how much you knew about players, their growth and their decline, how even the good ones can turn bad or how you sensibly re-seed a team that has passed its peak.
He could remind himself of when it was he realised it was just a matter of time before some de-stabilising bolt came out of a random enclave of the oligarch and his "advisers" and left him with just two options: attempting a little damage control or making a call to his lawyer.
It might just be that included in Ancelotti's limitation of another disaster is the winning of the Champions League, something Abramovich is so desperate to put beside his Francis Bacon Triptych 1976 (£50m) and Lucian Freud's Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (£20m.) This would be both a stupendous irony and an astonishing coup for Ancelotti but if it should happen – and the laws of probability are not encouraging – we can only hope that someone has the nerve to tell Abramovich that it happened in spite of and not because of his behaviour.
This is more or less accepted now by everyone outside of the owner's entourage and the loony element in the captive Stamford Bridge audience who recently shrugged away the crude sacking of Ray Wilkins and then swooned over the £50m swoop for Fernando Torres. But if the point needs any more emphasis there is at least one way of underlining it.
It isn't at all time-consuming. All you have to do is flick through the cumulative achievements of two of the managers Abramovich has fired, the one who now dangles in limbo, and another, Guus Hiddink, who had a curt response to the pleadings for him to stay after one short but brilliant stint. It went thanks but no thanks.
Let's start at the beginning with Jose Mourinho, whose downfall was presaged by a move made painfully reminiscent by the recent transfer deadline lunge for Torres: the imposition of Andriy Shevchenko, whose most significant early move, as has been the case with Torres, was to put Didier Drogba's nose out of joint.
Mourinho's trophies now include two Portuguese titles, the Uefa Cup, two Champions League triumphs, two Premier League titles, two Serie A scudettos, an FA Cup and two League Cups. Hiddink has six Dutch titles, a Champions League win and a consistent record for taking nations of radically different strength and traditions into the later stages of major tournaments.
Ancelotti's haul: a Serie A title, two Champions Leagues and an English Double in his first season.
Most of the Chelsea faithful agree that the one disastrous appointment was Luiz Felipe Scolari yet at certain points in his career it does appear that the Brazilian knew something of the game. At least this is the implication of three Campeonata Gaucho (the title of the Brazil province of Rio Grande do Sul), one Brazilian title, two Copa Libertadores (South American Cup) wins and the World Cup with arguably one of the most deeply mediocre teams ever fielded by the greatest of football nations.
Is it not staggering that this accumulation of football knowledge, backed by the vast wealth of an oligarch, is still to fashion the breakthrough its sponsor craves? Not when you consider the way Abramovich conducts his football business and to whom he listens most intently.
Interestingly, Chelsea have come full circle since Scolari was chased out of town. He left with public reproaches for the character and commitment of his team – and there was no doubt that the dressing room had turned against him quite decisively.
Scolari was accused of being out of his depth at Stamford Bridge but now the wry, knowing Ancelotti is on record with his opinion that only four of Chelsea's fabulously rewarded team – John Terry, Petr Cech, Branislav Ivanovic and Frank Lampard – are currently producing anything like authentic form.
Some might raise their eyebrows at Terry's inclusion in this number and there is no doubt that if Lampard's good intentions were plain to see in the weekend FA Cup defeat by Everton it is also true that he is still struggling to find the sharpness and the conviction that was lost when he was injured early in the season.
That Ancelotti should make such a wide-ranging denouncement of recent individual form is hugely and forlornly significant. It is simply not his style, but then maybe he has seen something that so inflamed the fiery and headstrong Scolari.
Perhaps Ancelotti has seen the same signs of a team no longer willing to go an extra yard – or find some of the old rage to turn back the evidence of decline. Perhaps he has seen a team too rich, too indulged and with too many excuses.
One thing is certain. If it goes wrong in Copenhagen tonight, or somewhere further down the road to the Champions League final at Wembley, we can be sure there will be no shortage of recriminations – or from where they will come.
Who would like to bet on the owner accepting his share? No, thought not.
Bahrain protests steer Ecclestone behind safety car
Formula one chief Bernie Ecclestone has never been short of pragmatism, as we learnt when the fatality rate among leading drivers provoked world champion Jackie Stewart into a long and successful campaign for increased safety.
Ecclestone declared drily that what we had was a natural "culling" process, that one man's ultimate disaster was another's opportunity.
To be fair to the creator of the F1 circus, he was at least owning up to the reality that part of its appeal was the inherent danger which once persuaded former world champion James Hunt to confess that sometimes he daydreamed over a sporting life that didn't require him to put his life on the line quite so regularly.
What is clear now is that Ecclestone's pragmatism was pushed beyond reasonable limits in his blithe reaction to the eruption in Bahrain that has inevitably wiped out the opening of a new season. Being philosophical about the fate of a few daredevils is one thing; the life and death of a suddenly emboldened, if small, nation is no doubt quite another.
City subs' hot-water bottles leave me blue
Maybe it is the calm before the storm, perhaps it is just that most of the old sweats who railed against the arrival of gloves and tights and, worst of all, snoods have congregated with their blankets at some old native Indian burial ground and are spending their last days gazing at the night sky while remembering the days of men like Dave Mackay and Norman "Bites Yer Legs" Hunter.
On the other hand, it could just be that the decision of Manchester City to supply their substitutes with hot-water bottles wrapped in blue has yet to sink in properly.
I wouldn't like to stir up anything, but the weather forecast for Sunday afternoon read: Mixed cloud and sun with the possibility of slight drizzle, temperature six degrees centigrade.
Where will it end?
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