Who would want to be a young star at Chelsea?
After signing young talents from around the world, Ancelotti seems intent on consigning them to the margins
Neymar, the prodigious young Brazilian striker whom Chelsea are so keen to sign, was put on the spot earlier this week at a sponsor's event in his homeland. Asked about the interest shown by the Premier League champions, the 18-year-old's reply identified an issue that may come to haunt Chelsea. "I don't know if I'll stay or go. But leaving the country to end up in the reserves doesn't interest me, it would be better to stay here."
With that comment the Santos boy hit the nail on the head – why warm the bench at Chelsea while Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka rattle in the goals, when he could be perfectly happy in the state of Sao Paulo?
Whether Neymar signs for Chelsea or not, this is a key season in the development of the Premier League champions. For the past few months they have been making much of their current crop of young players, such as Gaël Kakuta, Jeffrey Bruma and Patrick van Aanholt, and of how they are all going to get their chance this season. But until that happens, and one of the youngsters from their expensively assembled academy goes on to claim a regular starting place, they will continue to be dogged by their dismal record in promoting young talent.
Neymar, who marked his Brazilian international debut with a goal last week, is right to worry about getting into the current Chelsea team. He is one of the most talented young prospects in the world, but Chelsea already have on their books one of the most talented prospects in the world: Kakuta, who just a few weeks ago was voted the best player at the Under-19 European Championships in France.
The 19-year-old attacking midfielder was hailed by many observers as the undoubted star of the tournament, scoring twice and setting up the winning goal for Alexandre Lacazette in France's 2-1 final victory over Spain. Kakuta's brilliance was later recognised when he was awarded the Golden Player award by Uefa.
However, he has found it hard to get a game at Stamford Bridge, where competition for places in midfield means he comes low down the Blues' pecking order, behind a long list of established, experienced international names like Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, Florent Malouda and Yuri Zhirkov.
Kakuta was not in the squad when Chelsea kicked off their title defence at home to West Bromwich Albion, amid reports Champions League runners-up Bayern Munich want to take him on loan and put him straight into the team. Sources at Chelsea say the Frenchman, renowned for his ability to dribble at pace and for a wonderful left foot, will be used more regularly this season than last, when he made just one start and three substitute appearances.
Kakuta's chances of a prolonged run in the first team looked to have improved earlier in the summer, when the club decided to release two first-team regulars in Joe Cole and Michael Ballack. The Premier League champions then spent £6.6m on Yossi Benayoun and £18.3m on the Brazilian Ramires as the midfield was reinforced again.
Chelsea have been saying all the right things recently. Manager Carlo Ancelotti has repeatedly made it clear that he will be leaning on players from Chelsea's academy this season, and stated last week for instance that Dutch teenager Bruma will be promoted to replace Ricardo Carvalho, who was sold to Real Madrid.
He also recently called Kakuta "the future of Chelsea" and said he has great hopes for the boy. Ancelotti also blooded two of the club's FA Youth Cup-winning team – Josh McEachran and Billy Clifford – during pre-season.
But the only way players can fully develop their talent is through prolonged exposure to the first team, not 10-minute cameos or the odd appearance in a pre-season friendly. This season we will see if Ancelotti is as good as his word and picks the youngsters, and if these players are as good as he says they are.
His rivals have already turned to youth this season. Last weekend Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger was happy to pick England's newest full international Jack Wilshere for the club's vital game at Liverpool, while Sir Alex Ferguson gave 22-year-old Javier Hernandez the last 27 minutes of Manchester United's opening game against Newcastle.
They are two managers with long records of spotting talent, nurturing it, and then helping it develop into something spectacular. On Tuesday Ferguson spoke of the benefits that can be derived from taking a young player and teaching him good habits. "It is one of the important policies at the club that we identify young players who can grow into the club and develop," he said. "I feel it is the right policy for Manchester United. We are good at producing our own young players."
In contrast, Chelsea are not. The last player to emerge from their youth team or academy to become a first-team regular was John Terry, more than a decade ago. In the past five years the club has spent more than £50m spotting the best young talent in Europe, but so far without tangible reward.
In November 2005 Chelsea believed they had unearthed a gem in 16-year-old Serbian defender Slobodan Rajkovic who cost £3.8m. He has spent the past three seasons on loan to clubs in Europe and last week his appeal for a work permit that would have sealed a move to Fulham was turned down.
Great things were also expected of Scott Sinclair, when he signed from Bristol Rovers for £250,000 in 2005. Last month he was sold to Swansea City for £500,000 after having been sent on loan to six different clubs. Argentine striker Franco Di Santo is another to arrive for a large sum – in his case £3m from Chilean side Audax Italiano – but fail to impress. He scored once on loan at Blackburn last season and is still looking for a new club.
Chelsea are determined to change that trend, and are emphatic about their intention to promote young talent. Ancelotti said last week: "We have young players who are involved in the squad but we have to be patient. It's impossible to ask them to show immediately the quality to be strong, to show personality, to show character because they are young players. So we have to be patient and work them slowly, slowly."
Yet actions speak louder than words and Chelsea's poor record in promoting young players is hardly the greatest advertisement when they are trying to convince a young talent like Neymar to join.
Back of the queue? Neymar of Santos and the talent waiting in the wings at Chelsea
The 18-year-old scored a debut goal for Brazil last week, to go with his 32 goals in 33 games for Santos this season. The locals say he is as good as Ronaldo and Ronaldinho at this age. Chelsea are offering a five-year contract on £55,000 a week but are stalling on paying the £29m it would take to trigger the automatic buy-out clause in his contract.
The 19-year-old French midfielder became infamous last September when Fifa handed Chelsea a transfer ban for illegally inducing him to break his contract with Lens, a ban later overturned. Kakuta has appeared four times for Chelsea, and shone for France at last month's Under-19 European Championship. A shoulder injury hampered his progress last season.
Jeffrey Bruma, 18
Dutch full international who has replaced Ricardo Carvalho in the first-team squad.
Patrick van Aanholt, 19
Dutch left-back was impressive on loan to Newcastle last season.
Fabio Borini, 19
Striker who has won four caps for Italy at Under-21 level.
Nemanja Matic, 22
Serbian international midfielder who joined from MFK Kosice for £1.5m a year ago.
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