Carlo Ancelotti has never had to face the tried and tested mind games that Sir Alex Ferguson deploys when the title run-in begins in earnest but the Chelsea manager said yesterday that his team would not be blown off course as they begin the final five games that could bring the Premier League trophy back to Stamford Bridge.
Ancelotti's team face Bolton Wanderers tonight when victory will put the league leaders four points ahead of Manchester United with four games left to play. In his first season at Chelsea and still with an occasionally shaky grip of English, Ancelotti has nonetheless made himself familiar with the phrase "mind games" that Ferguson has previously used to such effect on opposition teams.
On Sunday the United manager put the pressure back on Chelsea when he said that the title had "slipped away" from his team after a draw at Blackburn Rovers and that Ancelotti's team have "an easy game" against Bolton tonight.
Having raised a characteristically quizzical left eyebrow at Ferguson's assertion that Bolton would be easy – "I hope that Alex is correct" – Ancelotti said that his team would not be affected by anything an opposition manager might say.
Ancelotti said: "At this moment of our season, nobody can make us lose our concentration or determination to win the title – only us. Only we can do this. But I think it's impossible that will happen. We have worked all season to be in the situation we're in now.
"At the moment, we're in a very good position. But this has happened not because we were lucky, but because we worked very hard every day all season. We were top of the league for a long time. We lost that position two weeks ago, but we're back there now and we want to stay there now for the rest of the season.
"I don't think my players think we've got to play an easy game [against Bolton]. I would like them to think it's a very, very important game. Maybe the most important game of our season. If we win we can improve our position in the table, and go four more points than Manchester United. My players have to be focused on this."
Nevertheless, Ancelotti also revealed that he was considering resting the man of the moment Florent Malouda for tonight's game because he was worried that the French winger might suffer from burnout. He is also preparing to bring back Michael Ballack in the place of Deco and Salomon Kalou for Joe Cole.
Asked whether he thought it might prove too much of a risk to leave out Malouda in such an important game, Ancelotti said that he had not made up his mind completely. "The risk is to play players who are tired," he said. "He's in good form, yes, and that is why I'm in doubt as to whether to rest him."
After the furore over John Terry's tackle on James Milner this weekend, Chelsea said yesterday that the former England captain had texted his international team-mate to check that he was not seriously hurt. However, there is no evidence that Terry has apologised for the first half challenge on Milner that Martin O'Neill said could have ended his player's career.
Ancelotti said: "I know he [Terry] tried to speak with Milner after the game on Saturday. He went in the locker room but it was locked. For him [Terry], I don't think it was a problem to say sorry. It was just a tackle. I know O'Neill was upset. But there's no news."
The Chelsea manager was asked yesterday whether he was aware of the debilitating effect Ferguson has had on rival managers during title run-ins, most famously the outburst he provoked from Kevin Keegan in his first spell in charge of Newcastle in 1996. The Italian was unperturbed by what Ferguson might throw at him but did confess that he had thrown away a big lead in a title race before.
That was ten years ago when his Juventus team gave up a nine-point lead to hand the Italian title to Lazio. On that occasion, he was not up against a rival manager who was famous for his use of psychological pressure – in charge of Lazio was Sven Goran Eriksson – but the memory of the disappointment of the 1999-2000 season has stayed with Ancelotti.
"I was very, very disappointed," he said. "We had a great chance to win it, but we were not able to do it. After that, I was very disappointed but now when there is a defeat I prefer to look forward immediately. I don't like to think about what happened. Or, if you do, only to think of how to improve. We know only one team will win the title and other teams will be disappointed."
With Portsmouth winning the other FA Cup semi-final to give Chelsea a relatively smoother ride in the FA Cup final on 15 May, Ancelotti is on the brink of an unprecedented double with Chelsea. It seems a long way from the Champions League elimination at the hands of Internazionale followed by a damaging draw with Blackburn in the league last month.
Ancelotti admitted that the players had a meeting after the Blackburn result on 21 March. "It was a very important moment," he said. "When you have a difficulty, you have to move on quickly." Since then they have beaten Portsmouth, Aston Villa – in the league and cup – as well as United. Before that game at Old Trafford, Ancelotti ran into his former Juventus goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar in the tunnel. "I said that I needed to win this game," Ancelotti said. "He said that they needed to win as well."Reuse content