Ancelotti: age is no barrier for older, wiser Chelsea

Italian manager puts faith in experience as champions look to avoid a fourth straight pre-season defeat
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Sometime or other, Chelsea's old guard are finally going to be too old but according to manager Carlo Ancelotti that time has not yet come.

Two summers ago, Sir Alex Ferguson said the Blues' squad was too decrepit to mount a serious challenge for honours; yet it was those ancient Chelsea players who took Manchester United's title from them last season and added the FA Cup to complete a domestic Double.

Another season on, and still the likes of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, John Terry and Nicolas Anelka remain the key figures in a team aiming to maintain its domination of the silverware of the English game.

Ancelotti, whose Chelsea side look like mere babes compared to the collection of old-stagers under his charge during his latter years at Milan, insisted yesterday he remains unconcerned about the effects of time on his squad.

Michael Ballack, who is pushing 34, has gone to Bayer Leverkusen with the 23-year-old Brazilian midfielder Ramires poised to take his place in the squad once his imminent £18.3m move from Benfica is completed.

However that is the lone element of rejuvenation in the squad which has seen 28-year-old Joe Cole replaced by 30-year-old Yossi Benayoun.

Having been rebuffed in their efforts to sign Liverpool striker Fernando Torres, Chelsea look much the same as last season, although they still have a fight on their hands to keep hold of Ashley Cole who is wanted by Real Madrid. Ancelotti yesterday repeated his claim that the defender is not for sale but admitted he had not spoken with the player about his state of mind.

As long as Cole stays put, Ancelotti is ready to stand by his Chelsea pensioners for one more year, at least. He believes experience will be the key to Chelsea's season. "They [the players] will be better this season because they have one year more experience, like me. I'm not older. I'm more experienced," he said at the club's training ground yesterday as he ran his fingers through his thick crop of grey hair.

"I am a better manager now. I had more doubt last year, when I started. I think we start this season in a different situation because I have more knowledge about players and club and atmosphere in England and the teams. I had a very good experience here and surely improved my knowledge."

Ancelotti said he will blood some of the club's young players this season, saying it would be a "risk" to play them in important games but said he had the "courage" to do so. Recent history however suggests the club will stick with the tried and tested formula of turning to experienced old hands.

Ancelotti predicted his ageing squad will be able to live up to the challenge of repeating their Double of last year, as he will rest players whenever the club's fitness tests show fatigue is starting to show.

"For us, after a fantastic season it was very difficult to change this squad and we were totally agreed to maintain the squad, to put in some young players from our academy. After a fantastic season I think we could repeat the same season this year with these players," he said.

"I think that for us will be more difficult. Everyone knows they have to play against last year's winner so we have to pay attention. There could be a surprise every game so we have to maintain better concentration to maintain the same level as last year.

"Last year we did the best. Every player did the best of their possibilities and we want to do the same. If we are able we will bring some trophies. Controlling the rests is very important, to control the load of the training. I don't think we have more problems because they're a year older."

The first challenge for Ancelotti is tomorrow's Community Shield with Manchester United, a fixture Chelsea won 12 months ago on penalties to give Ancelotti's reign the ideal start.

The game carries greater weight for Chelsea this time, as they come into it on the back of three straight defeats in friendlies. Ancelotti has put those blips down to lack of fitness, but he also admitted it makes tomorrow's game more important.

"We need to come back to winning ways," he said. "We lost the last three friendlies but we're not happy to lose too many games. We have the opportunity to win and start well."

Tomorrow also sees Ancelotti pitted against Sir Alex Ferguson again, a man who sportingly sent the Italian a message of congratulation when Chelsea won the Premier League on the final day of an enthralling title race. "He is a very kind man," said Ancelotti.

As he signed off yesterday's press conference, Ancelotti finished up by saying: "I was happy. He has been kind. I hope he sends me another one next May."

Three Key Confrontations

Nicolas Anelka v Chris Smalling

Back in comfier confines following his World Cup fiasco, Anelka will spearhead Chelsea’s attack after scoring 40 goals in two seasons. Summer signing Chris Smalling endured a torrid Premier League debut for Fulham against Chelsea and will have to be on his game.

Michael Essien v Darren Fletcher

Essien has impressed in pre-season and is likely to be the focal point of Chelsea’s attacking play in his first competitive appearance since December. Fletcher will be set the task of sticking to Essien, limiting both the Ghanaian effectiveness and Chelsea’s attacking options.

John Terry v Wayne Rooney

Rooney still awaits his first goal since the end of March and will hope to repeat his showing in last year’s Shield, when his late equaliser forced the game to penalties. Terry will also have a point to prove, as both sides look to put down an early marker for the season.

The Old Guard

*Premier League's oldest players:

Dean Kiely (West Bromwich) 39

Edwin van der Sar (Man United) 39

Pascal Zuberbuhler (Fulham) 39

Brad Friedel (Aston Villa) 39

Maik Taylor (Birmingham) 38

Mike Pollitt (Wigan) 38

Marcus Hahnemann (Wolves) 38

Mark Schwarzer (Fulham) 37

Kevin Phillips (Birmingham) 37

Carlo Cudicini (Tottenham) 36

Ryan Giggs (Manchester United) 36

Sol Campbell (Newcastle) 35

Paul Scholes (Manchester United) 35