x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Reality is biting for Ancelotti

The Italian's team are suddenly third favourites for the title as the ghost of Mourinho looms over Chelsea's season.

Such are the tales told about him and the powers attributed to him that Jose Mourinho can appear to be a mythical figure as much as a manager. The last week has provided Carlo Ancelotti with an unpleasant reminder of the realities of his most successful predecessor at Stamford Bridge.

It was Mourinho's Inter Milan who expelled Chelsea from the Champions League and made the Premier League their top priority. Sunday's 1-1 draw at Blackburn came with a backdrop of chants of Mourinho's name from the Ewood Park stands, represented two points dropped and increased the chances that the last Chelsea manager to win the division will remain the ubiquitous one. For much of the season, Chelsea merited their billing as favourites. Now they probably need to win at Old Trafford on April 3 to wrest the title from Manchester United's grasp. And that, along with their European exit, heightens the focus on Ancelotti.

His record is open to interpretation. He has triumphed in the Champions League twice, as many times as Mourinho, Rafa Benitez and Arsene Wenger have done between them. However, he only won Serie A once in eight seasons at AC Milan and never in two with Juventus. The last few weeks suggest he could be a serial nearly man. While Manchester United and Arsenal have acquired momentum, Chelsea appear to have lost it, along with their focus. Injuries have contributed in an undistinguished run: Ancelotti ended at Ewood Park with his third-choice goalkeeper and without three-quarters of his preferred back four. Yet Blackburn had a teenage debutant - the outstanding Phil Jones - in the heart of their defence, so it is not an issue confined to Chelsea.

It is not Ancelotti's fault, either, that the fallout from John Terry's extramarital dalliances appears to be affecting Chelsea or, indeed, that he is yet to make a big-money signing. Yet Ancelotti was appointed, in part, for his expertise in managing ageing teams. Chelsea have an air of fatigue and appear to be running out of steam, with only Florent Malouda really at the peak of his game and a pronounced reliance on Didier Drogba. Nicolas Anelka has not scored since the Ivorian returned from the African Cup of Nations; Frank Lampard is struggling to meet the standards he has set, year in, year out; Michael Ballack and Joe Cole are out of form and out of favour respectively.

Few of the problems at Chelsea were caused by Ancelotti, but he was chosen to solve them. Even a tradition of frugality is under threat: Chelsea have already conceded more goals than in any league campaign since 2003/4 or, to put it another way, since Mourinho drilled the defence so rigorously that they remained defiant long after he left. Mourinho's team were fearless frontrunners, preferring to top the table from the first day of the season to the last.

Ancelotti's side have lost a lead, both in matches and in the campaign as a whole. Games such as that at Blackburn threaten to become a microcosm of their year. That should concern Ancelotti. Comparisons were drawn between the inactive Italian and the permanently proactive Mourinho when they were yards apart on the touchline last Tuesday. Once again, the task is to emulate the Portuguese, a manager who could not only be both match and title-winner, but gain recognition as such, because Chelsea's departure from the Champions League has brought predictions of a clear-out. Such forecasts are made on an annual basis and normally prove incorrect. But managers tend to leave Stamford Bridge rather more often. Silverware provides the greatest guarantee against that and the best way of ensuring a place in Roman Abramovich's affections. No one understood that quite as quickly as Mourinho. None were as adept at delivering it either.

Saturday was a day to savour for Spurs strikers past and present. Darren Bent's time at White Hart Lane tends to be remembered in connection with the missed chance Harry Redknapp insisted his wife could have taken, but he reached 20 league goals for Sunderland in their win over Birmingham.

It is an outstanding haul in a struggling side and represents half of his team's goals. The on-loan Eidur Gudjohnsen, meanwhile, scored his first Premier League goal for four years to enable Tottenham to beat Stoke 2-1. His touch and technique provided an anomaly among the physicality at the Britannia Stadium. There is nothing glamorous about a trip to Stoke, but it ranked as one of Spurs' best results of the season.

Two late goals gave the relegation zone a look of permanence. Hugo Rodallega's last-minute strike for Wigan meant Burnley have still only taken one point on their travels all season. For Portsmouth, whose own fate appears ensured by the nine-point deduction that was ratified last week, Kanu's 89th-minute goal condemned Hull to a loss at Fratton Park. Leading 2-1 after 87 minutes, Iain Dowie's first game in charge began and progressed encourag- ingly until the cruel conclusion.

But factor in the wins for Wigan and Sunderland plus the hard-fought point Wolves took at Aston Villa and the Championship seems to beckon Portsmouth, Burnley and Hull City. @Email:sports@thenational.ae