No more Mr Nice Guy? Even if he wins, Ancelotti loses
Personable and successful, he should be ideal for Chelsea, but he is still likely to be sacked even if he takes the title
It is on page 43 of the English edition of Carlo Ancelotti's autobiography that he says he expects one day to be manager of Roma, the club where he spent eight happy years as a player under the eccentric regime of Nils Liedholm.
"Someday, I'm going to coach that team," Ancelotti says. "I have a debt of gratitude." Not for the first time yesterday Ancelotti felt obliged to deny that his visit to Rome this week was evidence that he was about to make good on that pledge.
Given that Ancelotti has freely admitted in the past to lying about his intentions in order to make life easier for himself, he cannot complain if we take that answer with a pinch of salt. He won the 1983 Serie A title at Roma, an achievement he says that he will always remember best for the occasion when a police dog bit the unpopular Juventus player Sergio Brio on the backside in the tunnel at the Stadio Olimpico. "We carried the dog in triumph on our shoulders," Ancelotti recalls, "when I think about the  Scudetto, that [the dog bite] is the first image that comes into my head."
That intentionally absurd remark about the dog is a feature of Ancelotti's book, a brilliant piece of work that is very different to most football memoirs. It is indiscreet about people and players he still works with at Chelsea. It is self-deprecating at every turn, often portraying the author as an insecure, overweight glutton who, in one instance, is so terrified at the prospect of telling Fenerbahce that he will not take up their offer of the coach's job that he gets his wife to make the call instead.
Somehow, you cannot imagine Sir Alex Ferguson admitting to anything similar. But this is the Ancelotti portrayed by Ancelotti himself: a funny, overwrought character, who is only too aware of his own flaws and might easily have stepped out of a Woody Allen movie. That he has not always come across that way to the English football public at large is because his command of the language has not always allowed him. He is one of only three managers to have won the Premier League and FA Cup Double and yet, in three games' time, he will probably be gone.
If Ancelotti's Chelsea team win against Manchester United at Old Trafford tomorrow they will be thrust back into the title race in dramatic fashion. Given their slump between early November and mid-February it will be regarded as the greatest comeback in the league's recent history if they beat United and go on to win the title. But the mood at Chelsea is that even if Ancelotti does deliver the club's fourth Premier League title he will not be the manager come the start of next season.
Much is changing behind the scenes at Chelsea. The club's sporting director, Frank Arnesen, is leaving this summer to join Hamburg, having finally made strides with establishing the academy on a footing with other leading English clubs. Many of those academy players developed under Arnesen over the last six years are now in the reserve side that will win the southern Premier League title if they beat Wolves on Monday. Win that and they play United for the national title, which the club have not won in 25 years.
Arnesen was the man who first approached Ancelotti to negotiate with him in 2009 to take the job and the two men have worked closely ever since. Arnesen's departure is one part of what promises to be a summer of transition. Roman Abramovich would appear, once again, to be impatient for change. That is likely to mean major new signings, a new management structure at the club that does not include an Arnesen-type role – and a new manager.
When Arsène Wenger won the Double in his first full season at Arsenal it rightly bought him three years to re-build before he repeated the trick in the 2001-2002 season. Ancelotti, on the other hand, looks set to be the most successful out-of-work manager in the game. It begs the question, what kind of manager is he? His record, in terms of trophies, speaks for itself. His personality is that of a man comfortable in his own skin. Shouldn't he be perfect for the Chelsea job?
It is widely believed that we will know much about Ancelotti by the team he selects tomorrow. If he picks Fernando Torres, the £50m signing so plainly out of form this season, and tries to fudge the formation, then he is Abramovich's yes-man. If he leaves Torres out and selects Didier Drogba as the centre-forward in Chelsea's optimum 4-3-3 system then, it is suggested, he is his own man after all and prepared to go down in flames.
The only hole in this theory is that Andrei Shevchenko, Torres' predecessor as an Abramovich-driven marquee signing, spent much of his last full season at Chelsea, 2007-08, on the bench. Even Abramovich's ever-loyal protégé, Avram Grant, did not use Shevchenko in the Champions League final at the end of the season. Shevchenko's league appearances almost halved from his first season under Jose Mourinho (30) to 17 in his second under Mourinho and, post-September, Grant. Abramovich still sacked Grant but it was not because he did not pick Shevchenko.
Ancelotti believes that the breakthrough for Torres is just around the corner and if he picks him tomorrow it is surely that conviction that will inform his decision rather than second-guessing what Abramovich wants. "Note to the outside world: I decide on the formations – I alone, in all cases – and I want to make that point clear once and for all," Ancelotti says in his autobiography, in that particular case in relation to the Milan owner, Silvio Berlusconi, during his time there as manager.
In many respects, Ancelotti has proved himself one of the most likeable managers of modern times. For a start, the royalties from his book all went to the foundation set up in the name of his former team-mate Stefano Borgonovo, who is suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. As far as celebrity memoirs go, that puts Ancelotti in a fairly exclusive group of two in British public life, the other being Tony Blair who came under considerably more public pressure to do so.
Another feature of Ancelotti's Chelsea is their attitude towards the game. They are currently top of the Premier League's fair play table and that does not seem much of a coincidence given how many times in his press briefings Ancelotti talks about respecting the game. John Terry will always try to referee the game himself but that is just his way. On the whole, the Chelsea team – Ashley Cole included – seem to have had the abrasive edge knocked off them. They no longer take the breath away so often with their pursuit of the referee.
Last season, Ancelotti took the remnants of Jose Mourinho's dual title-winning team and coaxed another great season out of them. This season, his ageing squad were hit hard by the demands of the World Cup finals and Africa Cup of Nations last year and the injuries to Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Alex – as well as Didier Drogba's malaria – yet they are still in with a shout with three games to go. That is some achievement.
But what of the other side of the coin? Ancelotti made fundamental mistakes in allowing the sale of Ricardo Carvalho, now a keystone of the Real Madrid team, as well as the release of Michael Ballack. Ballack's subsequent injury problems at Bayer Leverkusen mean that he might not have had anything like a full season at Chelsea had he stayed, but nevertheless a player of his standing needed to be adequately replaced.
As Ballack told The Independent in November, he did not believe that Ancelotti wanted him to go. However much a Chelsea manager is obliged to fall in behind the wishes of the owner and the hierarchy, he also has a responsibility to make sure that his team is competitive and the departures of Ballack, Carvalho and even Joe Cole, although Ancelotti never really had much time for him, affected Chelsea.
The sacking of Ray Wilkins in November was Ancelotti's darkest hour. At times he looked like he might be close to saying what he really thought about the situation but he could just not bring himself to force the words out. So he finished up stuck in the middle, neither really endorsing it nor condemning it.
For their part, Chelsea stand by their decision to dismiss Wilkins and given the reams of bad publicity it has earned them – all of which they have had to take without any clear explanation of why they did it – the feeling persists that there was more to this than meets the eye.
Nevertheless, it made Ancelotti look weak and submissive. He was billed as a man who, having worked for Berlusconi, was accustomed to accommodating the whims and desires of a dictatorial club owner. But Ancelotti's experience of Berlusconi was different. "He is rarely present at Milanello [the club's training ground]," Ancelotti says of the Milan owner in his autobiography. "During my last season, there were only occasional phone conversations about specific issues." Perhaps he was not as well prepared for Abramovich as might have been assumed.
In so many ways, Ancelotti's rabbit-in-the-headlights response to Wilkins' dismissal should have demonstrated to Abramovich why he is ideal for Chelsea. He accepted the sacking of his closest aide, a man, without whom, he said, "we couldn't have won a thing". He accepted that Jeffrey Bruma was ready to replace Carvalho last summer, a mistake that had to be rectified by signing David Luiz for £21m in the last transfer window. He accepted all these impositions without any outward sign of protest.
The Chelsea support appears to have mixed views towards Ancelotti. They would like the continuity of keeping a manager who has been successful in the past, regardless of what he does this year. Others are more critical of his tactical approach, arguing that his substitutions often do not mean a change in system or approach and often come too late in the game.
So many top managers build themselves up into infallible figures who are unable to contemplate any kind of failure without an argument. Mourinho is the prime example. He cannot simply lose a match or a cup tie. It has to be someone else's mistake or, worse yet, a conspiracy. The likes of Mourinho, and to a much lesser extent Ferguson, are simply not programmed to lose and when they do so, it short-circuits their whole system.
Ancelotti is different. He very rarely argues the toss after a defeat in a major game and when he does so it is not convincing. Even during the mid-season slump at Chelsea he did not rage against injuries or refereeing decisions. In fact, he did not do much to dissuade you from the assumption that this was a man quietly hoping it would all change of its own accord.
Like all managers at top clubs, Ancelotti has the impossible task. He has to keep all the disparate elements in his camp happy, as well as the owner and the fans, and win every competition he is in. Against Tottenham last week, Salomon Kalou greeted his winning goal with a pointed refusal to celebrate or even smile. It looked every inch like a protest at being the man so often overlooked in favour of Torres. It prompted the thought: if Kalou is playing up, what chance has the manager got of keeping the rest happy?
If Ancelotti had stood up for himself over the club's failure to replace players in the summer, or over Wilkins' dismissal, he could himself have been sacked. Instead, this natural survivor rolled with the punches and he now has what looks like being his last shot at a second Premier League title with Chelsea tomorrow. His acquiescence has bought him that much. It is a shame that it sits as a cloud over what should be one of the shining stars of modern management.
Victory at Old Trafford tomorrow would take Chelsea top of the league for the first time since November, having trailed by 15 points at one stage. Here are the greatest title turnarounds in modern times:
Leeds were top from the first month and had lost just once by the turn of the year. Don Revie and his side had opened up a seven-point lead over Arsenal by February but were caught by mid-April as the London side went on a nine-game winning streak. Despite winning their last three, Leeds missed out to Arsenal by a point.
In a season overshadowed by the death of manager Bill Shankly, champions Liverpool were a lowly 12th at the turn of the year but went on to win 18 out of 20 games to surge to a 13th league title. Southampton, Swansea and Ipswich all had spells at the top before Liverpool went clear at the start of April and they finished four points in front of Ipswich.
Liverpool led neighbours Everton by nine points in mid-March and appeared set for a ninth title in 11 years. Fast-forward a month, and after five defeats in seven games, Kenny Dalglish's side were caught by the Blues. Despite a late defeat at Anfield, Howard Kendall's Everton took the league by nine points.
Kevin Keegan's free-scoring Newcastle swept into a 12-point lead by mid-January with a 100 per cent home record. A poor run of two wins in eight games, and the misjudged signing of the Colombian forward Faustino Asprilla, allowed an Eric Cantona-inspired Manchester United to overtake them, with the Magpies finishing second by four points and Keegan cracking up on live television.
Sir Alex Ferguson's United looked set for a third consecutive title when they led Arsenal by 11 points in early March, but Arsène Wenger had other ideas in his first full season in the Premier League. The Gunners went on a 10-game winning run, including a 1-0 success at Old Trafford, to cut United's lead and overtake them just after Easter. Arsenal clinched the title with a 4-0 win over Everton and went on to complete the Double.
After the Double the previous season, Wenger had established an eight-point lead over United by March but, in a mirror image of five years before, Arsenal were hauled in by Ferguson's side. In a superb run United dropped just six points in their last 18 games, going unbeaten after Christmas.
Michael Butler & Debbie Kaplan
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