Roman Abramovich flew down to Chelsea's training ground in Surrey yesterday to see for himself how his £700m hobby is coming along.
Nothing particularly sinister in that, you might think, but in the light of Chelsea's shock defeat at Wigan last weekend and the unconvincing display against Champions League novices Apoel Nicosia in midweek, the timing of Abramovich's visit suggests the club's billionaire owner is keeping a very close eye on affairs.
Manager Carlo Ancelotti insisted there was nothing to be read into the timing of Abramovich's trip. And he is almost certainly right, because it is when you don't see the Russian that you start to worry. Abramovich stopped going to games when his relationship with Jose Mourinho went sour, and whenever there is any dirty work to do, he nearly always sends in one of his lieutenants such as Eugene Tenenbaum.
But the sight of Abramovich checking up on things will ensure everyone keeps on their toes, ahead of tomorrow's visit of Liverpool. Ancelotti, well versed in how to handle meddlesome bosses during his eight years under Silvio Berlusconi at Milan, will have assured Abramovich not to get on the phone to Guus Hiddink just yet.
Ancelotti said he had analysed recent games, including Chelsea's disjointed 1-0 win over Apoel Nicosia in midweek, and has highlighted the team's failure to move the ball forward as the major defect. A team meeting and a training session, and Chelsea are back on track was the gist of the Italian's message to Abramovich.
"I saw the game against Apoel and found something that we didn't do well, and we worked this morning to improve that. I think we will play better on Sunday," he said "The problem was possession of the ball. It was too soft. We have to improve the speed of our possession. Only this. We have to change this – the speed of the passing for the forwards. Normally, when things aren't good, you have to look, analyse, and we've done that. We have resolved the problem. It's normal in football. This is my work.
"Yes, I spoke with Roman. That's normal. He watched training and said hello to the players. I didn't ask him if he was worried. I think he is happy because his team is in the top of the table, and top of their Champions League group."
Sunday's visit of Liverpool is full of significance and symbolism for Chelsea. The corresponding fixture last year, in late October, saw Liverpool end Chelsea's 86-game unbeaten home record in the Premier League. Chelsea's form thereafter took a dive, with 11 wins from the next 23 matches until manager Luiz Felipe Scolari was fired in February.
Now with Ancelotti at the helm, Chelsea won six straight league victories, but showed an alarming lack of fight in their 3-1 defeat at Wigan last weekend. Is history to repeat itself for Chelsea and Abramovich?
Not an ideal time then to face Liverpool, a team that has so often proved to be Chelsea's nemesis in recent years and was last season described by Ancelotti as being the "hardest team to beat in Europe".
Ancelotti expects Chelsea to dominate possession and keep patient, while remaining vigilant at all times to the threat posed by Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.
"I would like us to control the game with intelligence," he said: "Playing against Liverpool will not be easy because they have a very good organisation defensively and they use the quality of their offensive players – Torres, Gerrard – to attack. We have to be intelligent, read the situation of the game and control it."
Tomorrow will be the 25th time the clubs have met in all competitions in five years, and in the past the games have tended to be dull. Yet their last meeting ended in a 4-4 draw in April's Champions League quarter-final second leg. Liverpool in particular have been scoring freely recently; the contest may be another open affair.
Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez said his side will travel to Stamford Bridge determined to continue to display its new-found attacking intent. He said: "Both teams will think 'we can attack and score goals' – normally it is 20 or 30 attempts on goal for each one, especially at home. So I think you will see two teams attacking and it depends on who has more possession."
Yet Benitez's main concern is in defence, after the 2-0 capitulation at Fiorentina in the Champions League in midweek. Daniel Agger trained yesterday having come through 68 minutes of a reserve team game on Tuesday night in his comeback from back surgery. He should have some hope of replacing either Jamie Carragher or Martin Skrtel, both of whom have been unconvincing, though a place on the bench seems more likely.
Javier Mascherano's return from hamstring trouble is the more essential. Fabio Aurelio may revert to the left-back slot Emiliano Insua has occupied. Glen Johnson – whose battle with Ashley Cole promises to be one of the afternoon's most absorbing contests – will be encouraged to play less offensively than of late. "Our full-backs can try to go forward but away from home a little bit less," Benitez said.
Chelsea will be without the suspended Petr Cech, so Henrique Hilario will deputise in goal. Didier Drogba, Jose Bosingwa and Michael Ballack return after missing the midweek trip to Cyprus.Reuse content