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Thursday, 25 November 2010

Abramovich must not alienate Ancelotti

Ray Wilkins' sacking may prove the final straw for Ancelotti
Oh, how the mighty can fall. Barely a month ago, Chelsea were five points clear at the top of the Premier League, and looked like the only legitimate contenders for this year's title. Four games and three defeats later, and the defending champions have somehow contrived to blow the race wide open.

Viewed in isolation, this downturn in form could be seen as a problem rather than a crisis. Defeats away at Liverpool and especially at home to Sunderland were admittedly the inevitable result of poor team performances, but the Blues will consider themselves unlucky to lose at St Andrews last Saturday, having peppered Ben Foster's goal for well over an hour.

Moreover,  these reverses were suffered in the absence of key players such as Essien, Lampard and Terry. And despite recent setbacks, the West Londoners remain top of the Premier League courtesy of a superior goal difference, with plenty of games coming up providing the opportunity to rebuild their advantage.

But it is clear that the problems at Stamford Bridge run deeper than simply injuries and a run of bad results.

Rumours are rife that manager Carlo Ancelotti has been appalled at the ruthless manner of Ray Wilkins' sacking and the totalitarian way in which head scout Michael Emenalo was promoted to replace him, and that the Italian is now considering his future.

Ancelotti himself denied such reports at a scheduled press conference before the Champions League clash with MSK Zilina. But his comments to the media on Wilkins and Emenalo are indicative of a man who, rather than having an active role in directing club policy, is being compelled to tow the party line.

The 51-year-old has repeatedly asserted that neither Wilkins' dismissal nor Emenalo's promotion were his decision. Moreover, when he was pressed on his feelings towards the matter, the Italian simply stated: "I am not here to explain how I feel in this moment. I am a professional and I will continue to work." It appears to be a case of 'if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.'

Nor is there any reason to disbelieve Ancelotti when he claims that he was powerless to prevent the sacking of his assistant. For if the appointment of Jose Mourinho in June 2004 highlighted Roman Abramovich's burning desire for success, the swift sacking of 'the Special One' three years later indicated that the Blues owner's desire for unrivaled control of all things Chelsea was no less ardent. Ever since, the Russian billionaire has gradually become more and more hands-on in his approach to his 'toy'.

It was, in fact, for these precise reasons that Carlo Ancelotti was top of the list to succeed Luiz Felipe Scolari at Chelsea in the first place. Having spent eight years in charge at AC Milan, Ancelotti was well used to the unique pressures of working for an overbearing employer in Silvio Berlusconi, and was consequently perfectly happy to be a head coach rather than a manager.

It was a perfect fit, and one which yielded immediate results.

Under Ancelotti's guidance, Chelsea ended Manchester United's three year dominance of the Premier League, and completed the first league-and-cup double in their history with victory over Portsmouth at Wembley. The former Milan man stated that he would  happily stay at Chelsea for ten years, and Blues fans dared to hope for a return to the stability which had been lacking since the departure of Mourinho.

But since then, things have begun to unravel. Abramovich's desire for a new age of financial prudence at Stamford Bridge - completely understandable considering the level of his investment to date - correctly saw over-paid, aging and expendable stars such as Ballack and Deco shown the door in the summer. However, the list of departures was considerably longer than the list of arrivals, and consequently Chelsea must now negotiate a difficult season with dangerously depleted resources.

This lack of squad depth was always likely to be exposed by the most competitive domestic league in the world, and the Blues appear a far less intimidating proposition minus the drive of Essien, the creativity of Lampard and the leadership of Terry. The onus is now on youth to provide a credible 'Plan B' when things are going wrong - something which the likes of McEachran, Bruma, Kakuta, Van Aanholt and Sturridge have so far failed to provide, despite their obvious promise.

A dearth of options threatens to derail Chelsea's ambitions on the pitch, but this pales into insignificance when compared to the tensions off the field which threaten to undermine all of the good work done at Stamford Bridge over the past twelve months.

Carlo Ancelotti may have been chosen for his willingness to cede control of various managerial responsibilities, but he has quite rightly not taken kindly to having the make-up of his technical team dictated to him - especially considering a trusted assistant has been unscrupulously removed to make way for a man with absolutely no coaching credentials whatsoever.

Roman Abramovich and Ron Gourlay may feel that Ray Wilkins' job was defunct and his wage excessive, but such arguments are, to a large extent, irrelevant. What is relevant is that Carlo Ancelotti certainly viewed Wilkins as having a necessary, and indeed crucial, role to play in the future development of his team.

By sacking Wilkins, the Chelsea hierarchy have put their relationship with their manager in the balance, and this is a huge risk to take. There are not many other, if any, world-class coaches who would tolerate the level of bureaucratic interference that Ancelotti does. If he goes, a viable replacement would not be readily available, and all of the stability built up in the Italian's reign would be lost.

After years of faithful service, the manner of Ray Wilkins' departure has left a sour taste. Roman Abramovich must now ensure that the Carlo Ancelotti era does not suffer a similar fate.  

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