Carlo Ancelotti yesterday insisted that Chelsea's troubles were over after a difficult period at the end of 2009, arguing instead that their rivals had missed a priceless opportunity to overhaul them. The Blues manager, who took charge at Chelsea six months ago today, believes his side are in great shape as the new year and the second half of the season get underway.
He is not, however, complacent – indeed, he believes the title race will go to the wire. "Manchester United and Arsenal are very close to us," Ancelotti said. "It's a very competitive championship and will be until the end of the season. But I think the problems are over now for Chelsea. There is not an unbeatable team. We had some problems in December and didn't win important games, drawing against Everton, Birmingham and West Ham, but it's normal to have these moments. Some teams had bad moments before, and we had that period that wasn't so good.
"But we still stayed at the top of the list so we've done better than the other teams over the first six months. I don't know what happens in the future. Arsenal, Manchester United will be difficult opponents. But, until now, Chelsea are in first place in the Premiership and we deserve to have stayed at the top of the list."
Ancelotti also claimed yesterday his side lead the division on merit and dismissed any criticism. He seemed particularly irked by comments from Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger that he had correctly predicted a month ago, following Chelsea's 3-0 victory at the Emirates Stadium, that the Blues would drop points. Ancelotti said: "He is a good magician if he said that after that game. He is a good magician."
For Ancelotti, the thought that he might go into the new year at the top of the Premier League when he took over would have been considered a major success. The amiable Italian has done just that, but Chelsea's two-point advantage over Manchester United represents a job only half-done. The events of the past month mean it can only be considered a modified success.
Statistics support the view that Ancelotti has done well, but has fallen short of the mark set by Jose Mourinho in 2005 and 2006. Ancelotti has won 20 of his 29 games in charge (excluding the Community Shield), with three defeats and six draws. In comparison, in his first 29 games in charge in 2004, Mourinho had won 22 games, with two defeats and five draws. In 2010, Ancelotti's team leads by two points; Mourinho's advantage halfway through the season was eight.
The negatives for Ancelotti have mostly been in defence. Goalkeeper Petr Cech has endured his worst run of form since joining the club in 2004, prompting speculation that Chelsea are looking for a replacement for him, claims the club have gone at length to deny.
The defensive malaise has also affected John Terry, who has made more mistakes than he would like. A lack of confidence in Cech, particularly when defending set-pieces, has left Chelsea vulnerable to moments of hesitancy and panic that have often proved costly. Ancelotti's diamond formation relies on the two full-backs pushing forward to provide width, which can expose Chelsea to counter-attacks down the flanks.
Both Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel have played consistently well in the midfield holding role, but neither has the defensive discipline of Claude Makelele, a player still missed greatly at Chelsea.
Ancelotti also has a problem at the point of his midfield diamond. He has tried four players in the role – Frank Lampard, Deco, Joe Cole and Florent Malouda – but not one has consistently looked comfortable. The role would appear to be perfectly suited to Cole's talents, but the England man has yet to turn theory into practice.
The positives for Ancelotti include enticing the best out of Didier Drogba; finding a way to play both Drogba and Nicolas Anelka; keeping everyone happy so far; and playing the kind of attractive, winning football that will keep owner Roman Abramovich happy.
The Italian, who has clearly enjoyed the first six months, said he expects the title race to remain wide open. "A lot of teams will be involved in the fight," he said. "I think the last results of Manchester City show they have an opportunity to return to the top four. I don't want to forget Arsenal, I don't want to forget Manchester City. I don't know if Arsenal, Villa, Tottenham or Liverpool can fight for the title, but I know that to play against them is not easy. It's a very competitive championship."
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