James Lawton: Chelsea miss a trick by ignoring Zola's spark in favour of burnt-out Ancelotti

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:48
Zola finds his team in the midst of a relegation battle
Zola finds his team in the midst of a relegation battle

One of these days Roman Abramovich may make a managerial appointment that isn't redolent of the bleeding obvious. It may not smack of some jaded consensus and the borrowed wisdom of his small army of professional yes-men down at the Bridge but rather a hint of adventure, a gamble on something that might be risky but could also prove inspired – and certainly more conducive to the arrival of the kind of football for which the oligarch is said to pine, and which he tasted a whole brimming samovar full of in last week's Champions League final in Rome.

From the moment Guus Hiddink made it clear that he was at Chelsea only for one of his Red Adair fire-fighting gigs, the odds on Carlo Ancelotti were prohibitive. The Milan coach, 50 next week, is no doubt a heavyweight – as were Jose Mourinho and Luiz Felipe Scolari when they received the nod. But from what gilded carriage does Ancelotti step down when he arrives in the King's Road at the end of the month?

Does he bear the means of brilliant, uplifting football? His dissatisfied boss Silvio Berlusconi plainly didn't think so when he handed him his P45 in Florence at the weekend, and that wasn't the most difficult decision to understand.

Despite playing talent of the order of Kaka and Ronaldinho and the nous of Clarence Seedorf, Ancelotti delivered guaranteed Champions League football only in the last match of the season, having failed to make the latest campaign and then been eliminated from the Uefa Cup.

Ancelotti, having seen his team outplay Mourinho's perennial champions Internazionale in an early derby game, never looked like producing his second career Serie A title and leaves San Siro looking more than anything like a burned-out case. Yes, his embrace with the great, retiring Paolo Maldini was touching and he is said to have been loved by his players – but what has dressing-room love got to do with the upward trajectory of a consistently winning manager?

Love, ask anyone from Sir Alex Ferguson to Barça's young Josep Guardiola, is the least of it. No, what you want is a lot of respect and a little bit of fear.

It's true Ancelotti has two Champions League title notches on his belt, but the first, when Milan beat Juventus on penalties at Old Trafford in 2003, was so far removed from what Barcelona brought to the Stadio Olimpico last week it might have been a different game staged on a different planet. Nor did his second success, against a suddenly palsied Liverpool, ever threaten to provoke performances of the Zorba the Greek dance in the streets of Athens. Last year Arsenal's under-achieving team cut Ancelotti's ambitions into small pieces at San Siro.

Perhaps Ancelotti will find some degree of rebirth at Chelsea. Maybe Abramovich will give him the cherry-picking funds denied Mourinho at the end and Scolari. But for a man who is said to yearn for adventure on the field, Abramovich seems curiously embedded in the status quo of management. It is not as though he lacks a profitable example in the matter of breaking old moulds. Guardiola, the author of one of the most thrilling bouts of sustained football brilliance in the history of the game, hadn't won a trinket when he was put in charge of the great club Barça's destiny. Abramovich's response is to go for the Ancelotti re-tread.

One of the few built-in advantages of Guardiola was to play for the team he lifted so high in the football heavens. He knew the place and its passions and its priorities. Some might have mentioned, even as a point of brief discussion, that in respect of Chelsea, Gianfranco Zola had such advantages and with the additional bonus that not only was he a respected old boy but a beloved one.

If Guardiola had fallen on his face, no doubt Barça could have reached into the old stockpile of big name veterans, which is something some thought might be West Ham United's resort when Zola failed in his suicide mission at Upton Park when Alan Curbishley was fired. But then far from causing anxiety in the East End, the little man – whom United's Ferguson rates as arguably the most honest professional he has ever seen – has provoked some of the old football joy. Impressively supported by the defensive coaching of Steve Clarke, another man who knows all about Chelsea, Zola not only prevented a West Ham slump, he invigorated the team with his own passion for playing a form of the beautiful game.

No doubt a move for Zola, who will be 43 next month, would have been dismissed as a romantic gamble, but right now what do Chelsea have to lose but the bitterness that still accumulates in the wake of their semi-final defeat by Barça? They may say that morally speaking they won a slice of the greatest club trophy when they were so ill served by bizarre refereeing, but there is another way of looking at it. It is that the brilliant pragmatist Hiddink gathered together the legacies of Claudio Ranieri, Mourinho, Avram Grant and Scolari and did the only thing he could: maximise the power of what was left to him. There was certainly no old magic to conjure, nothing of much aesthetic consequence with which to thrill the jaded owner.

For Abramovich Chelsea was supposed to be an adventure, a pursuit of pleasure and satisfaction and excitement that merely watching the growth of rouble mountains is not very likely to indefinitely satisfy. Naturally, the Chelsea fans were eager enough to clamber aboard. But to where has the journey really carried them? A place where ambition sometimes appears to have grown stale – and the entertainment quota of the football too easily surpassed.

Is Ancelotti anymore likely to change that than Gianfranco Zola? There is no guarantee, we know that now, but one thing is certain. It would have been more fun, and perhaps even more joyful, with the little man from Sardinia.

Barça show up TV pretenders

Not the least achievement of Barcelona's football team last week was to ignite both joy and anger in the heart of the great Jimmy Greaves, who many still insist was the deadliest striker ever produced by England.

Greaves was enthralled and thrilled by the beauty of the Barça performance. But it provoked anger when he reflected how constantly the modern game is larded with overstated praise in the TV studios.

Greavsie, who became a household favourite with his waspish analysis of the game at the peak of his TV career, said that we never see a bad performance in the modern game – some helpful euphemism is always fished out in the eternal battle to protect the product and prop up the ratings.

"It means it is beautiful," said Greaves, "when you see something that is truly great, something which anyone can see deserves such a description."

O'Brien's passing brings end to racing certainty

For Sir Peter O'Sullevan, arguably the wisest and most erudite of all racing observers, it was as though he suddenly realised the magnitude of his indiscretion. From his desk in the old Daily Express building he immediately called Lester Piggott to explain why he had gone against the mighty axis of the world's greatest jockey, and its greatest trainer, Vincent O'Brien, and tipped the French candidate Blushing Groom over their candidate The Minstrel on the eve of the 1977 Derby.

I shall never forget the terrible pause which followed O'Sullevan's announcement. "Lester, are you still there?" he asked. Apparently he was – and eventually he said, "Is it too late to change it?" The Minstrel came in magnificently with Blushing Groom third.

For O'Sullevan and so many others who revered his talent, an old age of certainty finally passed when O'Brien, aged 92, died yesterday. The man from County Cork, who made an unrivalled empire at his Tipperary stables beneath the shadow of the Rock of Cashel, did everything that it was possible to do. He won the Grand National three times, the Cheltenham Gold Cup on three occasions, and the Minstrel was one of six Derby winners, with Nijinsky generally considered the nearest to absolute perfection.

O'Brien's attention to detail was legendary, his gallops might have been passed down directly from the equine heavens, but his genius was the one that cannot be learned but is in the personal gift of God. No-one ever judged the talent and the heart of a great racehorse so acutely.

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