A Bridge too far?

June 12, 2009

Carlo AncelottiA few eyebrows will doubtless be raised by Chelsea‘s decision to appoint an exotic continental manager with a poor grasp of English just six months after sacking an exotic continental manager with a poor grasp of English. Accusations were certainly cast about Luiz Felipe Scolari‘s ability to control the dressing room given his alarming accurate impression of an overweight Andrew Sachs in Fawlty Towers. But will Carlo Ancelotti be able to do any better at Stamford Bridge?

Yes, Ancelotti has the European club football credentials that Scolari never had. But it is hard to escape the notion that he is Serie A‘s answer to Rafa Benítez – an extraordinary manager in Europe, woefully unable to reproduce that success at home. In eight years at AC Milan, Ancelotti won the Serie A crown just once. And that from a club with 17 league titles to their name. To be fair, over the same period he also reached three Champions League finals, winning two of them (with that one memorable defeat coming at the hands of Liverpool on that evening in Istanbul). Now there is nothing Chelsea fans, players and management desire more than victory in Europe – Didier Drogba‘s reaction to their last gasp defeat by Barcelona in this year’s semi-final says everything you need to know about that painfully empty shelf in Chelsea‘s trophy cabinet. However, Liverpool supporters will tell you about how frustrating it can be to be kings of Europe and paupers of the Premiership.

So if Ancelotti is to join José Mourinho and, now, Guus Hiddink in Chelsea‘s managerial good books, what are the three things he can do to get fans and players on side before the season starts from scratch in August?

Sign Carlos Tévez – Like the Argentineans, Chelsea fans have loved short, stocky, smiling assassins ever since Gianfranco Zola. As effective as Nicolas Anelka and, towards the latter end of last season, Drogba have been, neither is lovable. Tévez, on the other hand, has the perfect blend of work ethic and sublime skill. The £30 million fee would be well spent in these days where most football club’s transfer budgets wouldn’t buy Joey Barton‘s image rights.

Develop youth – Huddink came to Stamford Bridge with the promise of bringing fresh, local blood into the squad. Despite all his achievements at Chelsea, finding the next John Terry proved a challenge too many for the charismatic Dutchman. Jack Cork has demonstrated some promise at Watford last year, while Scott Sinclair is capable of moments of genius (or at least moments of blinding pace and a couple of good feet). But with millions invested in the youth set-up under Frank Arnesen, Ancelotti needs to start seeing results from the academy if he is to create a Chelsea for the future rather than another generation of aging footballers beginning to look past their prime.

Build a strong back room staff – There can be absolutely no doubt that Steve Clarke‘s departure for West Ham dealt a serious blow to Chelsea‘s title ambitions last year. Ray Wilkins is a sound coach, but the club are still in need of a defence specialist to get the most out of the likes of Alex, Branislav Ivanović and Michael Mancienne (who could be the long-term answer to Ancelotti’s search for talented youth). If rumours are to be believed, Paolo Maldini could be that man. Now there’s no greater emblem of modern football and everything Ancelotti built at AC Milan. But if the big Italian is looking for a fresh start, Marcel Desailly is available, speaks Italian, knows Ancelotti and has the bright blue of Chelsea running through his veins.

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A little bit of history repeating

May 7, 2009

thierry-henry-barcelona-001Another Champions League semi-final, another season of near misses all but complete for Chelsea fans. Even victory over Everton in the FA Cup would do little to make up for another 12 months of thwarted dreams. I never thought I would say this, but I can almost sympathise with Didier Drogba‘s reaction. The man who behaved so despicably in the final last year with his petulant slap can look upon his latest disciplinary slip with a manly pride. Not because the referee was wrong (he was, but it’s an impossible job and the harsh justice was distributed evenly, as Éric Abidal will tell you). Rather, because, like me, Drogba was enraged by the latest in a string of cruel twists of fate that started in Monaco five years ago.

That day, former Chelsea man Didier Deschamps oversaw 10 man Monaco as the French club hit two late goals to seal a 3-1 first leg win on the way to a 5-3 aggregate win. A year later and Luis García‘s ghost goal put Liverpool through to the final. Last year, it was John Terry‘s penalty miss that spelled out tragic disaster. And last night, 10 man Barcelona and their Spanish wizard Andrés Iniesta chiseled out the latest chapter in this liturgy of failure. Like a romantic hero, Chelsea seem destined to always fall at the last hurdle – their tragic flaw in character a willingness to implode at the most inopportune moments. Except, unlike a romantic hero, everybody hates us.

To be fair, there is something refreshing about the line-up for the Champions League final. For the first time I can remember, the two finalists have been consistently playing Europe’s best football over the course of the season. It’s also the first time this century that both finalists top their respective domestic leagues. But that will come as little comfort to any Chelsea fan, particularly after their heroics (yes, that word again) over two legs against a Barcelona team that has scored more than 100 league goals this season.

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Farewell Pavel

February 27, 2009

NedvedAt the end of the season we will bid goodbye to one of football’s greatest ever exponents.  I would always argue that Zinedine Zidane‘s legacy deserves a place alongside Pele and Diego Maradona in the roll call of the game’s best ever players. But I would also say that Pavel Nedvěd is a better player than Zidane. Not a better footballer – Zidane could do things with a ball that would make Manchester United‘s Cristiano Ronaldo look like a chump. But in my opinion Nedvěd could exert his control over a match and lift his team almost physically in a way that Zidane never could.

A perfect example of the great Frenchman’s limitations was the 2006 World Cup final. Zidane poured so much of his heart and soul into that pitch that I half suspect even the Italian team wanted him to win. Every spectator knew they were watching the best and the most tragic moment of Zidane’s career – the natural born winner struggling to drag his team across the finish line. And, in the end, failing. The sorcerer turned thug and in the blink of an eye Zidane had simultaneously brought about his demise and cemented his legendary status in the game. France lost in a penalty shoot out, with Zidane both hero and villain.

Which is all very poetic. And I am not saying that had Nedvěd put on a blue shirt and run out for France that day he could have changed the result. However, while Zidane had a habit of making all the other players around him look inferior, Nedvěd has the canny knack of raising his entire team’s game. His great tragedy is that he has never won the major trophy he deserved – or even had the same chance Zidane was afforded to blow that major trophy (although to be fair Zidane won plenty).

Zidane played for Juventus in two Champions League finals, losing both. When the Frenchman defected to Real Madrid (where he finally claimed the trophy in his first season), his €41 million replacement from Lazio was instrumental in helping Juventus reach another dramatic European showdown against AC Milan in 2003. But unlike his predecessor, Nedvěd never got the chance to shine on one of the game’s biggest stages. The midfielder was suspended after picking up a decisive yellow card in the semi-finals, where Zidane’s new club Real Madrid were the victims.

Admittedly, the Czech does have one more chance – overturn Chelsea striker Didier Drogba‘s goal in Turin in the next fortnight and the dream is still alive. Yet I expect that won’t happen. Great players, much more than simply good ones, have a habit of being – at the last – undone.

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