Ancelotti dares to look to future with Mikel and Ramires
Stamford Bridge is not a ground at which the future is often on display. From Jose Mourinho onwards Chelsea managers have tended to concentrate on the here and now, doubtless aware that when a man invests as heavily as Roman Abramovich he does not expect to wait (for further evidence, see Manchester City). The high turnover of managers under Abramovich is another disincentive to blooding young talent.
Carlo Ancelotti, however has been prepared to look beyond the annual quest for silverware. Josh McEachran, Gaël Kakuta and Patrick van Aanholt have been given cameo roles this season, and in the Carling Cup he adopted a similar approach to Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson. He paid for it with a home defeat to Newcastle United but that did not deter the Italian from looking at the medium-term, at least.
For all the changes since he left, Chelsea continued to carry the stamp of Mourinho throughout the tenures of Avram Grant, Luis Felipe Scolari and Guus Hiddink. Last night with Frank Lampard and Florent Malouda injured, Michael Essien not risking minor injuries, and John Terry rested, it was a recognisably different XI, especially at the core, midfield and central defence.
In theory a midfield of Ramires, John Obi Mikel and Yuri Zhirkov ought to be a match for most. The trio cost £50m-plus, all have experience at a high level, and are aged 23, 23 and 27 respectively. However, in practice they spent most of the first half chasing red-shirted shadows as Spartak Moscow passed around them. The Russians had 57 per cent first-half possession, a remarkable figure for a visiting team at Stamford Bridge. Ramires produced some glimpses of his energy, breaking forwards after 22 minutes before releasing Didier Drogba whose shot drew a decent save from Andrei Dykan. Within a minute he was chasing back to force Spartak into conceding possession. But playing for Chelsea demands more than a good engine. Lampard has that, plus an extraordinary goal threat and a good passing range. Ramires showed signs of the latter with the occasional long cross-field ball, one of which picked out Drogba, and resulted in the 62nd-minute penalty the Ivorian won and converted.
Mikel also found Drogba with a 40-yard pass, something he has been doing more frequently this season. Mikel last year established himself as an accomplished defensive midfielder, but he did not move the ball as quickly as Claude Makelele used to in that position, nor as imaginatively as the likes of Andrea Pirlo. That latter comparison is still a stretch for the Nigerian but there are indications that Ancelotti and his staff have been working on the offensive aspects of his game. He appears more mobile, too. Mikel needs, though, to cut out lapses of concentration like the sixth-minute pass to an opponent which led to Aiden McGeady curling a shot just past the far post. Had that gone in, the night could have turned out differently.
The third member of the triumvirate, Zhirkov, is the most experienced but having arrived as an attacking left-back he has struggled to find a role at Chelsea. The excellence of Ashley Cole and management preference for a narrow midfield has forced him to adapt.
All three played much better after Chelsea went ahead, even if the goal was the work of the forward line. With Spartak's enthusiasm ebbing there was more space to play and the trio began to enjoy themselves. So, too, did the crowd when Mikel made way for the massively promising McEachran.
Back in defence Alex and Branislav Ivanovic had some awkward moments in the opening period. The Serb allowed a cross from Andrei Ivanov to drop over his head after 30 minutes and was grateful Welliton did not control the ball properly. It is not easy, however, to adapt from playing full-back, as Ivanovic usually does, and forming a new central defensive partnership. Ivanovic certainly has the tools. He is mobile, strong in the tackle and in the air. The latter means he is a threat at set-pieces, as he showed with his first goal. Just as Alex has usurped Ricardo Carvalho it is possible to imagine Ivanovic replacing Terry when the captain's injuries finally catch up with him.
It is not easy for a coach to manage renewal whilst winning trophies every year. Ferguson talked recently of four-year cycles but it is unlikely the hierarchy at Chelsea would tolerate a season or two without a major title. But Ancelotti, who said "these players are the future of Chelsea", looks more likely to work the oracle than most of his predecessors.
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