Mikel may pay high price as Ancelotti polishes diamond

Sunderland will be the venue for Chelsea to shuffle pack in struggling midfield
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The Independent Football

Carlo Ancelotti takes his new charges to Sunderland this evening for what will be a thorough examination of whether his team have enough character and resilience to become Premier League champions in his first season.

It could be argued that the Stadium of Light represents a step into the unknown for Ancelotti, 50, who spent eight years in charge of Milan. But having been unsuccessfully courted by Chelsea's owner, Roman Abramovich, in the summer of 2008, it appears he kept his eye throughout last season on potential future opponents in the Premier League.

The Italian has admitted he watched the Premier League avidly while still at Milan to prepare him for his new challenge at Chelsea.

Speaking about the game, Ancelotti said yesterday: "It's not difficult because we have a good scouting network and before the game I will have a lot of information about their team. In Italy I have seen Hull and Sunderland play on the television. It's not new to me. We will go there in the right mentality to play."

The Chelsea midfield has become as congested as traffic on the Kings Road since the Italian arrived. His favoured midfield "diamond" formation has yet to prove its worth, though it has to be said that had he managed to prise Andrea Pirlo away from Milan it could have been a very different story.

Ancelotti is clearly unconvinced by the ability of John Obi Mikel to fill the role at the base of the diamond satisfactorily. He has withdrawn the Nigerian international during both games, at the weekend saying he needed "greater quality".

On both occasions Mikel was replaced by the German captain Michael Ballack, who so far has been the odd man out as Ancelotti decides which of his star names to leave out. Ballack, however, did not slip into Mikel's defensive role, as Michael Essien was asked to fill his shoes.

As yet Ancelotti has not found the right combination of players to make the system work, although once Joe Cole returns to fitness early next month that may improve. The point of the diamond could just be the position Cole has been crying out to play all his career.

But when Cole and the new £18m signing Yuri Zhirkov are fit, Ancelotti will find it hard to play all his stars, and that's when the problems could well start. Ballack has so far been the man to miss out, but the German is unlikely to remain happy with his role as an impact substitute for long. He has made it clear he wants to play in the club's big games, which presumably means he is happy to sit out today's visit to Sunderland.

Ballack said: "The first thing is that you want to play every game, if possible. But I've played professional football now for 14 years, and I know that you can't play every game and be at the highest level. Especially in England, where there are so many games, so many good teams, and no winter break like we have in Germany.

"So you need a rest or rotation, and every big team does this. I'm at an age now, 32, where it is normal to miss a game and rest, but the big games, especially, you always want to play in."

Ballack also said the diamond formation places more physical demands on the players. "In a diamond your attention is more on controlling the play, you have more ball in midfield and one more man there as well," he said. "So you gain a small advantage through the centre but there's more hard work for the four midfielders because they have a lot of work to do on and off the ball in this system."