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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Who are Hiddink’s youths?

February 21, 2009

kakuta_nana_lEarlier this week Guus Hiddink warned his senior players that he was more than happy to give their places to talent coming up through the Chelsea ranks. Which, in reality, means giving Michael Mancienne and Franco Di Santo a chance to start the odd game in Chelsea‘s remaining Premiership fixtures. But after four years of heavy investment in the club’s youth set-up spearheaded by Danish head talent scout Frank Arnesen, are Mancienne and Di Santo really all Chelsea have to show for their money?

The youth team have just been knocked out of the FA Youth Cup by Liverpool, so the early signs aren’t great. However, there are some real gems in among the mediocrity. The captain, Liam Bridcutt, is a midfielder with a look of grit and determination that will get fans of Dennis Wise drooling. Currently on loan at Watford, the 19-year-old has been brought in by former Chelsea coach Brendan Rodgers for the struggling Championship team’s relegation battle, a sign in and of itself of Rodgers belief in the youngster’s force of personality.

Then there’s Gaël Kakuta, a Frenchman who was voted Academy’s Scholar of the Year last year in his debut season with the club after joining from Lens. With a sharp left foot and eye for goal, he could well be the long term successor to Thierry Henry‘s Premiership legacy – if he stays fit, that is. Which currently isn’t looking all that likely after Kakuta broke a leg and ankle in training earlier this month. At 17, the striker is well ahead of the curve in terms of development and has all the time in the world to make a full recovery. However Hiddink doesn’t have that luxury.

It’s worth pointing out that other, more widely recognised names are still hanging in and around the periphery of the first team. Ben Sahar – currently on loan at Dutch Eredivisie side De Graafschap – seems much older than his 19-years with a handful of Chelsea run-outs and 13 caps for Israel already under his belt. Ryan Bertrand has just broken into Stuart Pearce‘s England Under-21s after amassing more than 40 games for Norwich City over two separate loan spells. With Wayne Bridge now out of the equation, the attacking left back may just find himself in the first team mix next season.

But I suspect he won’t, that Sahar will be sold to one of many suitors and that it will be two or three years before we begin to see the first glimmers of Kakuta’s promise in the Premiership. Why? Because yes, these are players are good, but they probably aren’t as good as – say – Everton‘s teenage stars Dan Gosling and Jack Rodwell. And perhaps more importantly, they aren’t as needed. Yes, Hiddink could probably pick Bridcutt in the heart of his midfield against Aston Villa this afternoon. Or he could  pick Germany captain and footballing superstar Michael Ballack. And as the old saying goes, nobody ever got sacked for picking Ballack.

Watch Kakuta in action:


What do you Hiddink?

February 19, 2009

hiddink1Guus Hiddink faces his first big challenge as Chelsea coach against high-flying Aston Villa on Saturday. The importance of this fixture against the club immediately above Chelsea in the Premiership has doubtless not been lost on the new Dutch manager. But can any result turn Chelsea into winners after the circumstances that have beset the London club over the past two weeks?

I don’t think so. Even if Hiddink can mastermind victory over Villa by springing a surprise or two (for example thrusting Michael Mancienne into the action), I don’t believe one win – or even a piece of silverware – can undo the long-term damage Scolari’s sacking has done to the club. For starters, Hiddink isn’t just a part-time replacement for a full-time manager. Along with Scolari, Chelsea dismissed Flavio Teixeira, Darlan Schneider and Carlos Pracidelli from their backroom team. So Hiddink is a part-time replacement for a manager, an assistant manager, a fitness coach and a goalkeeping coach. And given the short term nature of his contract, Hiddink seems both unlikely and unwilling to bring in any additional support – despite the availability of a ready-made assistant like, say, former Chelsea star Gus Poyet.

Then there’s the problem of preparing for the summer transfer window. Last season, before Luiz Felipe Scolari arrived at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea had already splashed out £16.3m on José Bosingwa. Neither Scolari or his predecessor Avram Grant has been able to stamp their mark on a squad that has lost key peripheral players including Claude Makélélé and Wayne Bridge in the past six months. Makélélé’s loss in particular has had a visible impact on the team, with his replacement Deco so clearly unfit for task that Scolari was forced to look to German Bundesliga and Brazil flop Mineiro for back up. With news breaking today that Hiddink intends to bring Russian crony and CSKA Moscow winger Yuri Zhirkov to Stamford Bridge – regardless of whether or not he is still manager by the time the player arrives – there is surely a possibility that his successor will be lumbered with yet another unwanted new arrival with allegiances to the former regime.

Of course, it is not Hiddink’s job to worry about these details. After all, he has enough on his plate holding down his five jobs (at last count). Rather, they are problems for his successor – Carlo Ancelotti perhaps? Which is a great shame, because Hiddink is absolutely the right man to take Chelsea to the next level, namely Premiership and European success on a consistent basis. But no manager can deliver all that in a fist full of months: just ask Sir Alex Ferguson, who took three years to assert his vision on Manchester United. Or even Hiddink himself, who was given just seven months to turn around Real Madrid in 1998. And, for the record, couldn’t.

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One cap wonders

January 30, 2009

It’s all right for some people. With England‘s friendly international against Spain just around the corner, David Beckham has moved half-way across the globe and reproduced his finest form, all in the hope of securing a record equaling 108th cap. But in the shadow of Beckham, fans of the Premiership‘s less fashionable clubs and even some gossip columnists will be beginning to speculate about which players Fabio Capello will be handing an international debut.

Surely Aston Villa‘s James Milner – England’s most capped Under-21 international with 40 matches under his belt and eight goals – is due a promotion to the senior team? Perhaps Capello is set to spring another surprise after including Michael Mancienne in his last squad – in which case, the midfield duo of Tottenham‘s Tom Huddlestone and West Ham‘s Mark Noble have been impressing in the junior ranks. However, the fear for all of these players is that they sucumb to the fate of the “one cap wonder” – players called up on the back of exceptional form or circumstance to fill a void in the national team, or simply as a misjudged experiment. Recent candidates include Portsmouth flop David Nugent, while Jimmy Bullard has a lot of hard work to do at Hull to avoid being similarly derided. 

So I’ve put together a team of recent players to fall into the “one-cap” trap since the Premiership‘s inception in 1992. I have been careful to leave out the footballers who are likely to add to their tally, with the likes of Robert GreenBen Foster and Gabriel Agbonlahor left off the list (sorry Phil Jagielka, but that’s just my opinion). I have also missed out Francis Jeffers (who has a record of one goal in one game for England) and Michael Ball, because some wasted talent is a little too hard to stomach. To see players like Chris Sutton (a Premiership winner with Blackburn) and former UEFA Champion’s League semi-finalist Lee Bowyer in the team is certainly food for thought.

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I would love any thoughts or opinions about the respective qualities of the players above, and why any manager – and particularly such a venerable old hand as Terry Venables – would allow David Unsworth onto an international football pitch. I mean, seriously?