Carlo Ancelotti looked askance when he was asked how long Chelsea could persist with their renowned batch of thirtysomethings. "Remember, I have experience of this – I have trained players when they were in their forties," he replied, raising a quizzical eyebrow.
It was a nice line but, as with all the best jokes, there was a pointed truth behind the humour. When Chelsea were scouring the globe for yet another manager in the spring, it was not simply Ancelotti's silver-soaked CV which caught their eye, but also his flair for drawing the best from players in the twilight of their careers.
The Italian's squad at Milan, led by the ageless Paolo Maldini, who finally retired in the summer two months before he turned 41, was stuffed with battle-hardened veterans who were kept young by the sports-science expertise at the club's Milanello training centre.
Now Ancelotti is faced with a similar scenario at Stamford Bridge. The average age of Chelsea's starting line-up for this afternoon's tussle with Manchester United is likely to be around 29 and several of the club's most influential players, including Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Nicolas Anelka, Michael Ballack and Ricardo Carvalho, are already well over 30. But while the cynics might cast aspersions on this new breed of Chelsea pensioners, Ancelotti, who sought to emulate the success he enjoyed at San Siro by bringing the Rossoneri's former conditioning expert Bruno Demichelis to west London during the summer, insists his senior professionals are on the cusp of a glorious Indian summer.
"I don't think people should look at this squad as an old squad – John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole are, for me, young players, not old ones," said Ancelotti, who recently suggested Terry could emulate Maldini by playing past his 40th birthday. "In this moment, when a player is 30, he is at the centre of his career. Ten years ago people might have said he was an old player and would not carry on much longer, but now with new physical training routines and the other things clubs can do, being 30 means they are in the best moment of their career."
Chelsea have the chance to justify Ancelotti's faith in today's summit meeting with United at Stamford Bridge, a clash that arguably represents the sternest test yet of Ancelotti's tenure. The Italian starts the afternoon from a position of enviable strength, five points clear of Sir Alex Ferguson's side.
Ancelotti could have been forgiven a certain bullishness, but he was in a largely diplomatic mood. He side-stepped an enquiry over how many United players would squeeze into his first-choice starting line-up and declined to speculate on whether it is now Chelsea, who have plundered 19 goals in their past five games and boast the Premier League's second leading scorer in Drogba, who should be considered the greater entertainers. "I know United very well, not just this season, and I like to watch them play," he said. "There is no great difference between us and them in terms of the style of the football we play.
"Exciting football arrives because you can use players with quality. We can do this but United can do this as well. I don't think we are playing more exciting football than them particularly. We have done very well and we want to continue our form but I have great respect and consideration for United as opponents."Reuse content