x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Carlo Ancelotti knows title is Chelsea's to lose

Whether the champions win or not, their Italian manager remains unflappable for he has seen it all before.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Chelsea manager, clearly stays away from the drama. Perhaps equanimity comes with winning the European Cup twice as a player and the Champions League twice more as a manager. His attitude alone stands him apart.
Carlo Ancelotti, the Chelsea manager, clearly stays away from the drama. Perhaps equanimity comes with winning the European Cup twice as a player and the Champions League twice more as a manager. His attitude alone stands him apart.

The tributes he paid to Fernando Torres, to Pepe Reina and to the Liverpool defence were kind. His analysis went unquestioned because it was underpinned by a realistic appraisal of the events he had just witnessed.

With his generosity of spirit, disarming honesty and laid-back demeanour, Carlo Ancelotti truly is a man apart. Seeing him after the defeat at Liverpool prompted the thought that the Italian must have lowest blood pressure in Premier League management.

Perhaps equanimity comes with winning the European Cup twice as a player and the Champions League twice more as a manager. Perhaps it is genetic. But at a time when others would appear stressed, the Chelsea manager remains his amenable, reasonable self.

Amid football's tendency to over-react, perspective can be applied with a glance at the league table, showing Chelsea's two-point lead. Nevertheless, Ancelotti's side have started to stumble after an electric start.

The figures present a stark change; 19 goals were scored in the first five games but only six have been forthcoming in the last six. Ancelotti admitted Chelsea did not deserve to win at Blackburn Rovers last week, when Branislav Ivanovic pilfered the points with a late goal, or on Sunday when Liverpool were vastly the superior side in the first half.

That his side have lost at both Liverpool's Anfield and Manchester City's Eastlands means they have failed their two most severe tests on the road. Factor in a stalemate at Aston Villa and they have drawn a blank in each of their three toughest away games.

They are statistics that can suggest Chelsea are flat-track bullies, scoring a glut of goals against West Bromwich Albion, Wigan Athletic and Blackpool but lacking the same incision when it matters most.

It is pertinent, too, that Chelsea have ceded control of the midfield battleground in both of their two defeats. Ramires, their costlier summer signing, was found wanting both at City and at Liverpool (as the other, Yossi Benayoun, is a long-term absentee, there are reasons to argue that Ancelotti is working with both a weaker and a smaller squad).

While it may be harsh to fault a defence that has been breached only five times, Chelsea can be unsettled by the rapid movements of strikers, whether Carlos Tevez or Torres.

That Ricardo Carvalho, long the speediest and classiest centre-back at Stamford Bridge, has now been reunited with Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid is a factor.

But Ancelotti ignores the first unwritten commandment of management - thou shalt moan - as while many of his counterparts need no second invitation to broadcast their injury list, the Chelsea coach rarely raises the subject of his.

Frank Lampard has not featured since August, something which his manager has been reluctant to complain about, and Michael Essien, that wonderfully high-calibre enforcer, also missed the match at Liverpool. A fevered Didier Drogba was only fit to play 45 minutes in which he altered the game.

Besides habit, there are reasons why Ancelotti retains his composure. He has weathered difficult spells beforehand and a supremely calm temperament is an asset.

Moreover, while eight points have been dropped in six games, no challenger has presented a convincing claim to Chelsea's throne.

City and Arsenal have both been beaten three times already. Manchester United remain undefeated but were way below par in overcoming Wolverhampton Wanderers at home with a last-minute goal.

Interestingly, Sir Alex Ferguson claimed a few weeks ago: "Chelsea have had it easy. I think they chose the fixture list themselves."

Ancelotti is too dignified to respond in kind, but it is United who have faced only one of last season's top six and Chelsea who have played four of the top seven finishers now. So while Chelsea are not unbeatable, he can remain unflappable. The title is still theirs to lose.

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Occasionally a persecution complex is justified.

Consider Stoke City's fortunes in their last three games: against Manchester United, Gary Neville should have been sent off in the first half, but was granted a reprieve, soon substituted and the 11 men proceeded to a 2-1 win.

Versus Everton, Tuncay Sanli had a goal disallowed, a decision that few agreed with, in a 1-0 defeat.

And Saturday's 2-0 setback at Sunderland included a Kenwyne Jones header that both crossed the line and was handled by Lee Cattermole, stood next to the post. Stoke can only wonder what the refereeing fraternity will do to them in tonight's match with Birmingham City.

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Besides the goals, there were two notable incidents at Old Trafford on Saturday. The first was sadly predictable, Owen Hargreaves limping off.

His first start in 26 months was officially timed at five minutes, though several of those were spent on the sidelines before Bebe could replace him, and, including a late substitute appearance last season, Hargreaves has touched the ball six times in two years.

The curiosity came later in proceedings as Wolverhampton Wanderers were hanging on to a 1-1 draw; Karl Henry, criticised for poor challenges this season, executed a superb tackle in his own penalty area and, in surely a first, Mick McCarthy punched the air to celebrate a challenge. Cruelly for Wolves, it was not enough to earn them a point.

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Occupied by Bolton Wanderers for 24 hours and now Newcastle United, fifth place appears the designated spot for deserving overachievers.

 

sports@thenational.ae