Less than two months into the season and the spectre of Groundhog Day already looms at Stamford Bridge. Just as last year a storied foreign manager arrived and made an immediate impact, delivering a team which has won matches and played attractive football, all without antagonising everyone. Maybe, it seemed, Roman had found his man at last. But now the performances have started to slide.
Will last year's turmoil be repeated.
In autumn 2008 Luiz Felipe Scolari began with a 12-match unbeaten run. Deploying a new formation featuring full-backs raiding forward the team reached its peak with the sparkling evisceration of Aston Villa a year ago this week. However, home draws against Spurs and Manchester United had hinted at cracks and the façade came tumbling down with a home defeat to Liverpool in late October. Thereafter Scolari oversaw 11 wins in 23 matches before being fired in February after a goalless draw at home to Hull.
Fast forward 12 months and Carlo Ancelotti launches the season with a nine-match winning run deploying a new formation featuring full-backs raiding forward. There has been some sparkling football. Then came Saturday's 3-1 defeat at Wigan, in which Chelsea were outplayed, followed by a fortuitous and undistinguished win over Champions League makeweights Apoel Nicosia on Wednesday. And the next opponents are: Liverpool at Stamford Bridge.
Calm down, calm down. The season has barely begun and Ancelotti has a track record to rank with the best. All true, but Chelsea are an unusual club. The command structure around owner Roman Abramovich resembles a medieval court with the political intriguing to match. Abramovich was not in Cyprus but Eugene Tenebaum, perhaps the most influential of the courtiers who surround him, was, and he did not look best pleased when he headed for the exit with several minutes remaining.
Moreover, there is a successor-in-waiting. Ancelotti is Abramovich's sixth manager in just over five seasons and it is not just the club's endemic instability which threatens him. The fifth man in that series was Guus Hiddink, and if it were not for the fact that his day job is coaching Russia, with a salary subsidised by Abramovich, he would still be at Chelsea. Abramovich respects him, the players love him, and, as a recent visit to the club's training ground illustrated, Hiddink is still very much in touch. He may also soon be available.
Should Hiddink's team defeat Germany in Moscow tomorrow week, and follow that with a victory in Azerbaijan four days' later, Russia will have booked a 2010 World Cup place. At the very least they will be in next month's play-offs. All of which would leave Hiddink free to undertake another caretaker role at Chelsea, this time with a view to becoming a permanent appointment after the World Cup finals.
Hiddink and Ancelotti are mutually respectful acquaintances, but both recognize football can be a brutal business and the Dutchman is an ominous shadow to have hanging over any dug-out. Thus Ancelotti's unbridled anger on Wednesday night. The conventional wisdom is that the Champions League group stage is about results, not performances, and an away win is an away win no matter how scrambled. But Ancelotti knows there is a bigger picture being played out and he needs to impress.
One by one the grim faces of the Chelsea players leaving the dressing room told the story. There had been no backslapping at a solid result ground out in unpromising surroundings. Instead there had been an old-fashioned rollocking, as Frank Lampard, one of the few to stop and talk, effectively admitted.
"There were a few things that the manager wasn't too happy about with the performance, particularly second half. I think that was pretty obvious," said Lampard. "He was pleased with the result, but he said there were things we had to improve on. I think we all knew that anyway."
The England midfielder added: "It wasn't great. In the first half we were in control of the game. Maybe we could have been a bit more forceful in the final third, but we controlled the game. Second half they came out and gave us a tough game. We didn't play our best."
Asked to subscribe to the old cliché, "the sign of a good team is to win when not playing well", Lampard looked doubtful. "Well, yeah. Maybe. It was a bit disappointing because, in the second half, we didn't play as well as we can. Things went a bit awry. We weren't keeping the ball well enough or keeping our shape well enough. We ended up giving the ball away quite a lot and inviting a bit of pressure."
Chelsea's unaccustomed inability to keep the ball was one of the aspects that riled Ancelotti, even the introduction of technical players in Deco, then Joe Cole, failed to eradicate the wastefulness.
However, Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack and Jose Bosingwa will all return on Sunday, which should provide greater cohesion. In addition, as Lampard pointed out, Liverpool are hardly in prime form themselves.
"We can improve on this on Sunday, and Liverpool will be trying to improve as well," he said. "It's a big game. We've started very well at home and let's hope we can continue that."
Wednesday was a worse night for Scolari. The Brazilian is now coaching Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan. The club, with his compatriot Rivaldo in attack, lead the domestic league by 19 points. But they lost 4-1 to Pohang Steelers in South Korea on Wednesday night to go out of the Asian Champions League at the quarter-final stage.
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