x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Carlo Ancelotti: a gentleman and a fighter

Even if Chelsea's Italian manager is starting to panic about the Blues' form, he will give nothing away.

Ancelotti, left, shares a moment with captain, John Terry, centre, and former assistant coach Ray Wilkins, who was sacked last month. 
Darren Walsh / Getty Images
Ancelotti, left, shares a moment with captain, John Terry, centre, and former assistant coach Ray Wilkins, who was sacked last month. Darren Walsh / Getty Images

For all its diversity of foreign players, its numerous overseas coaches and the fact that more and more of its clubs have owners based in different continents, the Premier League can still hold insular views.

Carlo Ancelotti, on being appointed the new head coach of Chelsea in the summer of 2009, was to many British minds the man who had stood, vexed, on the touchline for two of the more memorable English triumphs in the history of the Champions League.

Neither of them showed off his capabilities as a motivator. First, there was the spring of 1999, a semi-final between Juventus and Manchester United. The clubs had drawn the first leg at Old Trafford, and within 12 minutes of the second, Juve had scored twice for a 3-1 aggregate lead.

Ancelotti, only recently put in charge of the Italian champions, seemed assured of his place in the final. But by the end of an extraordinary 90 minutes, United had scored three times at the Stadio Dell'Alpi, and Juve were out.

Poor Ancelotti, then 39, had to digest the United manager Alex Ferguson's observation that while "Ancelotti had steadied the [Juve] ship" in the preceding months, he "kept thinking what a godsend it was that Marcello Lippi [the previous Juve coach] was not in the Juve dugout."

Fast forward to May 2005, and the Champions League final in Istanbul. Ancelotti's AC Milan were chasing their second Champions League triumph in three years. They led Liverpool 3-0 at half time.

The rest is history: 3-3, and victory to Liverpool on penalties. "Carletto", as Ancelotti is known to his compatriots, acquires a reputation as a manager who struggles to hold on to good leads in high-profile contests.

It is not a balanced view. Ancelotti has won the Champions League twice, a tally that neither Jose Mourinho nor Ferguson nor Vicente Del Bosque have exceeded.

Unlike any of those, he has won the European Cup both as a player and as a coach.

He has worked in two different countries and won the league in both Serie A and in England, the Premier League at his first time of asking.

Yet barely seven months after guiding Chelsea to that prize in his first campaign in charge of the London club, the image of the man slowly letting slip an advantage - as he did those nights in Turin and in Turkey - is stalking Ancelotti once more.

Chelsea's defence of their domestic title has hit a wobble, with one win in their last five games. They have fallen from the summit of the table, and the big scorelines that featured in the earlier months of the season seem a long time ago now.

Ancelotti seldom gives off signals of panic. That is a strength. Rarely does he betray rage, which can lead to him being mistaken for a fine fair-weather leader, but an impotent one in the face of a storm. What can be reported with certainty is that the education of Ancelotti the coach has included intense courses in the art of compromise.

No head coach endures for eight years at the AC Milan of Silvio Berlusconi by persistently saying "No" to all the suggestions and whims of his employer. That has always been thought to be a good initiation to the Chelsea of Roman Abramovich. Ancelotti is the fourth head coach the Russian owner at Stamford Bridge has appointed since Mourinho left in late 2007.

As a player he was always respected for his ability in midfield, his intelligence and indeed his courage.

"Ancelotti was a gentleman, but he was also a fighter," Sven Goran Eriksson, who coached Ancelotti at Roma in 1987, told me.

"He was extremely professional, and very interested in everything, always asking tactical questions.

"At Roma he had three or four operations on his knees and on a Monday he woke up and couldn't walk. By the afternoon he'd be having a run. Roma sold him because they thought Ancelotti was finished. He went to Milan and won everything."

In the great Milan team of the late 1980s and early 90s, he collected two scudetti, a pair of European Cups and the last of his 26 Azzurri caps.

On retirement, Arrigo Sacchi, his coach at Milan, took him on as an assistant with the national squad.

From there he went to Parma, built a dashing team - although in England they note that he could find no regular role for Gianfranco Zola, who would thrive in the Premier League - before his brief adventure with Juventus and then his dynastic period at Milan.

Rigorous and shrewd, he was popular and respected there, but never obsessive, with interests outside the game and a refuge in his beloved countryside.

"He always has his feet on the ground, he'll never act the prima donna," Eriksson said. "After a big game, he would be happy to be up on his family farm driving his tractor."

In London, there must be times when he longs for those days.