x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Shades of Mourinho as history repeats itself at Stamford Bridge

The current change in coaching personnel at Chelsea is a throwback to four years ago which ultimately led to Jose Mourinho leaving the club.

LONDON // "For us players Ray [Wilkins] was important. For Carlo also, because he was he was between us and Carlo. Everyone was a little bit in shock, everyone was surprised because no one expected this." - Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic.

Had Ivanovic lived a little longer in the soap opera that is Roman Abramovich's Chelsea, the shock would have been diminished.

Turfing out a profoundly experienced assistant coach against the manager's wishes for an underqualified replacement? That will be the genius strategy of December 2006 that ultimately cost Chelsea the services of Jose Mourinho.

For Ray Wilkins and Michael Emenalo swap Steve Clarke and Avram Grant. For Premier League and FA Cup-winning Carlo Ancelotti, trade Mourinho with back-to-back League titles from his first two seasons at Stamford Bridge. Precede with summers in which Abramovich dictates transfer policy, forcing his managers to work with squads they would not have chosen themselves. Throw in an early-winter dip in performances and ham-fisted history is repeating.

The difference between Ancelotti and Mourinho has been in their reactions.

Four winters ago, Mourinho kicked up merry hell. He outright refused to allow the long-serving and popular Clarke to be evicted for Grant, an oddball from a minor footballing nation whose principal qualification was his relationship with Abramovich.

The Portuguese made his anger public, waging civil war over the owner's dictats on defensive reinforcements for good measure. Clarke was saved, Grant's appointment postponed; but before the year was out Chelsea had lost Mourinho and a winning way.

Schooled in the idiosyncratic imperialism of Silvio Berlusconi's AC Milan and a naturally conciliatory character, Ancelotti has acceded to his employer's whim. To friends, the Italian has expressed anger at losing Wilkins mid-season following a "consultation process" that amounted to no more than being informed that the Englishman was out and Emenalo - formerly a Tuscon Soccer Academy girls' coach - promoted from head opposition scout.

Publicly, Ancelotti has limited dissent to distancing himself from the change of personnel, stating it was the club's decision.

Brought to Stamford Bridge by Grant in 2007, Emenalo has cultivated relationships with the club's board, prospering even after the Israeli's dismissal. Wilkins, in contrast, had lost powerful allies when Peter Kenyon, the chief executive who appointed him, left Chelsea and John Terry, who recommended him, lost influence following multiple misdemeanours.

The reaction of the playing staff has been mixed. Terry, the club captain, was horrified, pointedly praising Wilkins in programme notes.

While Francophone players had no great affection for the 54-year-old, they were angered by Emenalo's elevation. "It's like Avram Grant all over again," said one veteran of 2006's attempted putsch.

What all observe is Abramovich exerting authority on the club he acquired in June 2003. Despite the Russian's demand that Chelsea repeat last season's title success and add a first Champions League trophy, the squad has not been strengthened this year and five senior internationals allowed to leave. Ancelotti was instructed to promote five academy players to the senior squad and promised at least one significant new recruit.

The Italian asked for Fernando Torres, but was furnished with Yossi Benayoun - a midfielder who failed to hold down a place in the weakest Liverpool team for a decade - and the modestly remunerated Ramires, whom he first spoke to at the Brazil international's unveiling.

The remainder of Ancelotti's double winners were antagonised by the removal of bonuses for everything except trophy wins. The team travels to this afternoon's Premier League fixture at Newcastle United as a troubled group.

The extra demands on a thinned squad have seen key players sidelined. Their freewheeling early-season form has deteriorated into three defeats - and just a single goal scored - in the last four league fixtures. That is as ugly a sequence as the Abramovich era has seen, but the owner will broker no excuses.

Beguiled by the all-conquering football of Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, he is convinced that the wonders of La Masia academy can be replicated in West London. Fighting the tide is the popular, effective Ancelotti. Despite his success, his attractive, attacking football, his calm, loyal behaviour, there has not even been a conversation about extending a contract that expires in 2012.

Privately, Ancelotti wonders whether there might not be a more gratifying place to work in the English game he loves.

Ask if he will be still be at Stamford Bridge next season, and the reply comes with a weary chuckle. "I think so," he replies.

The madness of Chelsea is that he no longer knows so.

sports@thenational.ae