James Lawton: Wenger's side have the ability to show Ancelotti just how good a magician he is

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The Independent Online

There was a slight danger of Carlos Ancelotti becoming too good to be true but it now appears to be ebbing away as the title race intensifies.

Of course he has a long way to go before completely trashing the idea. Calling Arsène Wenger the "good magician" was a pretty mild response to the Arsenal manager's sour but prescient prediction that Chelsea would start dropping points almost from the moment they so brusquely undressed his team at the Emirates.

Many of the rest of us, including some of Wenger's most obdurate admirers, reached for rather more critical descriptions of the Frenchman.

Fantasist was one high on the list. Unshakeably bad loser was another. But then what he also was, as Ancelotti has perhaps unwittingly confirmed, is a man who tended to see certain things beyond the vision of most of his rivals and whole infantry divisions of mere commentators.

He showed impressive nerve. If ever there was a defeat guaranteed to send most men into the shadows, licking their wounds like wounded animals, it was surely the tour-de-force of hard-edged winning instinct inflicted by Ancelotti's men. Didier Drogba, particularly, ravaged Arsenal but Wenger was in no mood to hide. An entirely reversible setback, he declared, Chelsea were far from untouchable, having offered his team possibilities they unfortunately had failed to take, and so it has proved.

Certainly the Merlin slur is guaranteed to sit lightly on the Arsenal manager's shoulders because this is maybe the season when he knows that the chemistry of his team has rarely been fired with such promise.

Magician is certainly something less than an over-statement if we review Arsenal's response to the sale of Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Touré and the hammer blow of losing their most important striker, Robin van Persie. The £10m purchase of Thomas Vermaelen remains a most viable candidate for signing of the year and the response to the loss of Van Persie has not been the kind you lift from any old coaching manual.

So with whom do you replace the lean and mean and long Dutchman? You hand the job, with certain apologies but considerable faith, to the doll-sized Russian artist Andrei Arshavin. Result: a continued belief that Arsenal's lovely football is more potent than it has been in several years.

Ancelotti's prickly response to Arsenal's progress was significant in that it broke a pattern which had seemed proofed against both brilliant success and dismaying failure.

He displayed an easy style and contempt for the twin impostors of win and loss, rarely seen in the upper echelons of English football.

While his predecessors Jose Mourinho and Luiz Felipe Scolari railed against every twist of fate, Mourinho eventually tearing up his notes at the end of games in gestures of contempt for his players' failure to follow his masterplan, Scolari publicly ranking the effort levels of individual members and heaping much blame on referees, Ancelotti was equanimity itself. This was most notable when a desperate performance at Wigan brought a first, shocking defeat.

"We must not make a drama of this," declared Ancelotti. "These things happen to every team from time to time." Ancelotti was philosophical, relaxed, and, frankly, looked like a man who was going to make pretty short work of the challenge that proved beyond all but Manchester United in three title-winning years. Yet the squandering of what seemed like certain victory at Manchester City and a clutch of dropped points may finally have disturbed the Italian's charm front.

That, no doubt, was one factor – and also the growing evidence that Arsenal have indeed found both an authority and a depth which went missing so profoundly when Eduardo was struck down with serious injury and Cesc Fabregas failed to build on the brilliance of his winning performance against Ancelotti's Milan in San Siro the season before last. What Ancelotti has maybe triggered with his little burst of angst is the understanding that he too sees in Arsenal a team that has acquired the precious knack of riding through the odd reverse with minimum damage to its self-belief.

It is surely a possibility that carries the most dispassionate observer easily above the barricades of partisanship. What, really, could be better for the Premier League than the triumph of the club who are managed with a consistent feeling for values which are both the best and most sensible to be found in football.

In less promising times Wenger has fallen back on his belief that the greatest importance in winning is that it makes more attractive the challenge of doing the right things for their own sake. If winning is the point, if you can justify with it all else, Wenger has suggested it doesn't really warrant the preoccupation of intelligent, decent men.

Perhaps given the scale of this ambition, Ancelotti touches a nerve of reality by suggesting that it is the dream of a "good magician" rather than a practical football man. Still, it has never been a less demanding chore to enlist under the banner of Merlin. If football doesn't have a magical quality, it simply isn't worth the trouble.

Ancelotti does recognise a wider threat to his pursuit of a Premier League title at the first time of asking. He acknowledges the warrior qualities of United – and the capacity of his old Milanese rival Roberto Mancini to cleverly and consistently exploit his resources at Manchester City. Yet it was when the name of Wenger was mentioned that the charm and the generosity slipped most perceptibly.

Wenger, plainly, has got some way under Ancelotti's skin. In itself this is no mean performance but then much more exciting is the fact that soon enough it may be one of Wenger's least achievements in a brilliant and, maybe, crowning season.

McCoy sets his own standards

Another year rolls round – and so does Tony McCoy. He finished the old year with a three-timer and yesterday brought in Can't Buy Time at Cheltenham with such authority you might almost have felt sheepish at collecting at 8-1.

But of course you didn't because beyond all the vagaries of bloodstock there is one certainty. It is that if a horse has a chance, no one will enhance its possibilities more surely than the man from County Antrim.

After a decade of sport, there have been many nominations for the man of the first 10 years of the 21st century. None of them, though, prosecuted their performance with more courage and more élan than the man who long ago defined the term professionalism.

Botham book can only add lustre to a legendary figure

One of the more intriguing events of the sports publishing year will be the publication of a new and independent re-assessment of the career of Sir Ian Botham.

It is in the hands of the fine cricket correspondent Simon "Oscar" Wilde, who two years ago completed a similar assignment on the great Shane Warne.

A legend as spectacular as Botham's may be seen by many as a suitable case for debunking. However, it will be surprising if the astute Wilde challenges a central truth. It is that whatever his faults, there can be no doubt about the substance of Botham's place in national folklore.

Some argued, for example, that Botham's superb fund-raising achievements on behalf of children suffering from Leukemia may, initially, have had something to do with a need to correct some negative aspects of his public image.

Yet such doubts long ago dissolved. Whatever one of the first motivations, Botham saw a need and a duty – and he fulfilled both magnificently. He was also, of course, a hell of cricketer.

Portsmouth tale shames Premier League

The story of Portsmouth is progressively sad and pathetic and damning in what it says of the corporate pride of the Premier League.

Each new breakdown in the faith of supporters in their relationship with a once proud club makes a nonsense of the belief that the world's richest football league has any grasp of the sacred principle that it can only be as strong as its weakest link.

An organisation valuing its good name would, some time ago, have taken firm steps to check the devastating impression that it is a league in name only.

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