Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti yesterday looked back over the remains of what will go down as the worst season of Roman Abramovich's eight-year reign and confessed the squad was not good enough.
With speculation mounting that he will be replaced in the summer, the Italian refused to take any questions on his future, so instead was quizzed on the club's past – specifically where Chelsea went so wrong this season.
Ancelotti confirmed that he fully supported the decision last summer to release five senior players – Michael Ballack, Ricardo Carvalho, Joe Cole, Deco and Juliano Belletti – but admitted the decision to start the season with just 19 first-team players did leave the Double winners vulnerable when injuries hit them hard in late autumn.
Ancelotti said: "I don't think the squad was good enough this year. At the start of the season, we couldn't have envisaged having very important players out at the same time. We struggled to manage this – without [Frank] Lampard, [Didier] Drogba, [Michael] Essien, [John] Terry, Alex. It was very difficult. At a certain point in the season, we needed to put [Paulo] Ferreira in at centre-back because we'd lost all our other centre-backs. You cannot think at the start of the season that you'd have all these players out."
Chelsea started the season with the smallest squad in the Premier League, the 19 senior players including three goalkeepers. The aim was to integrate young players from the academy gradually but when injuries struck the policy left Chelsea horribly exposed. The limitations of the squad became apparent in November, when they were beaten 3-0 at home by Sunderland, and Ancelotti decided he could not rely on Chelsea's young lions any more. "In the difficult moment, it was harder to put the responsibility on them," he said.
The elephant in the room is the sacking of assistant manager Ray Wilkins just three days before the defeat to Sunderland. With one blow Abramovich's decision to sack Wilkins and promote Michael Emenalo as his replacement destabilised Chelsea's dressing room and undermined the authority of the manager. Coming as it did when Terry and Lampard were both out injured, and Drogba was suffering the effects of malaria, the timing could not have been worse.
Ancelotti yesterday threw in the towel on Chelsea's title defence, and admitted he does not care whether his team finished second or third, just as long as they qualified for the Champions League. "Second or third place is not important for Chelsea. The first thing is to win the title. The second thing is to reach a position that allows us to reach the Champions League next year," he said. Chelsea are two points behind second-placed Arsenal.
The main concern for Chelsea going into tonight's home game with Birmingham City remains the ongoing goal drought for their £50m striker Fernando Torres, which now stands at 12 games and covers 701 minutes. Chelsea were more like their old selves in Saturday's 3-1 victory at West Bromwich Albion, where Drogba was preferred to Torres and Chelsea reverted to a more familiar 4-3-3 formation. Ancelotti admitted he is tempted to stick with the same team as Brazilians Alex and Ramires are again both missing, but also gave his support to Torres.
The Chelsea manager said: "It's very difficult to change the team that played so well against West Brom, not just for the result, not just for the performance. It's not a good moment for Fernando, but I want to do my best to support him. To score one goal, for him, could be the best medicine."