Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Ancelotti's judgment on the line at Old Trafford

Chelsea's beleaguered boss must abandon the Fernando Torres experiment for Sunday's title decider, even if it costs him his job

Ancelotti's team selection may be crucial at Old Trafford as Chelsea seek to retain their title

Against all the odds, Chelsea once again find themselves in with a chance of winning a title they had done their very best to lose.

Arsenal’s defeat of leaders Manchester United on Sunday leaves Carlo Ancelotti’s side three points off the pace with an identical goal difference and with what Sir Alex Ferguson admits is a “massive chance” to frustrate United in their quest for a record 19th league crown.

With a decisive trip to Old Trafford to come this weekend, the Blues go into the final three games of the Premier League season knowing maximum points will almost certainly see them retain their title.

And this is all despite a wretched run which saw them record only five wins in 16 games between early November and mid-February,  and despite the fact that they have suffered seven defeats overall this term.

To describe this as an extremely difficult campaign for Carlo Ancelotti would be a considerable understatement.

Attempting to compete for domestic and European honours with a criminally thin squad of ageing stars against a backdrop of boardroom interference has proved a fool’s errand, and a belated £70million January transfer spree proved insufficient to deliver the Champions League trophy Roman Abramovich so greatly craves.

After all he has endured, it is likely Ancelotti will leave Stamford Bridge at the end of the season regardless of the result at Old Trafford on Sunday, either as yet another victim of the Russian billionaire owner’s well-worn axe or of his own volition.

And this is exactly why, having been presented with one last opportunity to lead Chelsea to an unlikely defence of their Premier League crown, the Italian must be bloody-minded, and disregard any prior deference to Abramovich’s vanity when picking the eleven players who will face United.

The presence of a misfiring Torres has created a huge problem for Ancelotti

I am talking, of course, about Fernando Torres, the £50million gift that just isn’t giving. It is the Spaniard who represents the biggest threat to the Blues’ chances of seizing the initiative in the title race this weekend.

Torres’ struggles over the last 18 months have been well documented, and there are countless theories which have sought to explain his drastic decline in form.

Protestations of unhappiness on Merseyside secured a big money move to west London, but if anything the 27-year-old has looked even more lost in his new surroundings, as he tries to adapt to a new system, new teammates and a new way of playing.

Ancelotti has tried gamely to find a style which brings the best out of his new frontman, but all have involved shoe-horning too many square pegs into round holes. Torres’ epic Chelsea drought may be over, but one goal from fifteen appearances remains a damning indictment of both player and manager.

Ancelotti recently described Torres in a press conference as ‘the present and future of Chelsea.’ He’s half right.
Having spent so much money on bringing in a world-class striker six years the junior of Didier Drogba, it is inevitable the powers that be at Stamford Bridge want to build the next great Blues side around the Spaniard.
Didier Drogba's improving form has been an key component in Chelsea's revival

But it is the Drogba, not Torres, who must lead the line at Old Trafford on Sunday. For starters, big name competition appears to bring the best out in him.

The big Ivorian responded to the arrival of Andriy Shevchenko in 2006 by scoring a then-career best 33 goals for Chelsea the following season, and Torres’ presence appears to have had a similar effect.

Drogba has still to hit top goalscoring form since contracting malaria in October last year, but he is the main reason why Chelsea have taken 25 points from a possible 27 in their last nine games despite never looking their imperious best.

With Drogba leading the line, Chelsea are a formidable attacking force. With Torres, they are a team carrying a passenger. If Ancelotti thinks any different, he would be well-advised to re-watch the tapes of his side’s Champions League exit at Old Trafford last month.

Chelsea looked toothless and sluggish for well over an hour of that game until their manager lost patience with Torres and handed Drogba the unenviable task of rescuing the tie inside the last 20 minutes. The 33-year-old did not succeed, but accomplished more in his brief cameo than Torres has since January.

United’s excellent central defensive partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic will feel no fear if they see the Spaniard’s name on the team sheet again on Sunday.

Nor is pairing the two together a viable option. On the occasions when it has been tried, the whole team has suffered.

Drogba and Torres have struggled to play together since the latter's January arrival

Playing two central strikers necessitates a narrow four-man diamond midfield and an over-reliance on the full-backs for width, and Chelsea have been found out very quickly by both United and Liverpool when playing this way recently.

Even on a purely footballing level, when they have been on the pitch together, Torres and Drogba have appeared at best incapable of playing together and at worst unwilling to try.

In such a situation, Ancelotti must go with the more effective choice. And, of course, Torres would still be a potentially dangerous one man 'plan B' if Chelsea are forced to go for broke late on at Old Trafford.

Chelsea will not necessarily win if Drogba starts on Sunday, but they will have a fighting chance. If Torres starts, all available evidence suggests they will lose.

After all he has seen over the past few weeks and months, it is almost inconceivable that privately Ancelotti has not reached this same conclusion, despite what he says in public.

Consequently, if he selects Torres to lead the line against United, it must be interpreted as an attempt to indulge the Chelsea owner to the detriment of his side's chances.

But any such attempt at indulgence would prove fruitless for the Italian. 

Roman Abramovich has shown himself to be a man who will not countenance failure, even if he has contributed to it. He has no record of showing mercy to his managers or even acknowledging his part in their downfall, and there is no reason to assume this will change.

It will be Carlo Ancelotti’s judgment, and probably his job, on the line at Old Trafford on Sunday. Therefore it is his own judgment by which he must abide.

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