x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Still a bit dodgy for Ancelotti

Chelsea avoid three successive league defeats at Newcastle, which would have been their worst run of the millennium, and reclaimed second place.

Carlo Ancelotti watches yesterday’s game at St James’ Park from a snowy vantage point on the sidelines.
Carlo Ancelotti watches yesterday’s game at St James’ Park from a snowy vantage point on the sidelines.

NEWCASTLE // As he stood at the edge of his technical area at St James' Park, Carlo Ancelotti appeared an imperilled figure. Time and again, the snow falling in great clumps from the roof of the Jackie Milburn Stand narrowly missed the Chelsea manager.

But there are other bullets to dodge and a team that has suddenly acquired the habit of shooting itself in the foot sustained a self-inflicted wound. This time, however, Chelsea healed themselves.

They avoided three successive league defeats, which would have been their worst run of the millennium, and reclaimed second place.

Before Salomon Kalou's equaliser, even Ancelotti's Zen-like calm was tested. After it, there was a sense that Chelsea had displayed sufficient resolve to halt their slide and that, depleted though they were, there were signs that they retain the character to prosper.

Ancelotti, meanwhile, has the temperament to remain at a trying club. Rumours that the Barcelona duo of Pep Guardiola and Txiki Begiristain are lined up to become manager and director of football at Chelsea were met with an arched eyebrow. "Usually the coach is the last to know this, no?" he said.

Roman Abramovich's machinations can endanger his managers, with Ray Wilkins and Frank Arnesen, two of the backroom staff, on their way out. The initial difficulties at St James' Park, however, came from a Brazilian defender, not a Russian oligarch.

Newcastle took the lead in farcical fashion. After John Obi Mikel had dispossessed Wayne Routledge, Alex was hopelessly askew in his attempts to roll a backpass to Petr Cech, steering the ball past the stranded goalkeeper. Andy Carroll accelerated beyond him to accept the gift of a tap-in.

Alex requires surgery on his knee this week and, judging from his slow turn, it is having an impact on the Brazilian. Yet, given Chelsea's inability to replace Ricardo Carvalho in the summer, Ancelotti had little option but to persist with him.

The Italian had changed formation, to 4-4-2, in a bid to prevent crosses being aimed at Carroll, but Alex's error ensured he needed no service from the flanks to score.

Nevertheless, Alex almost levelled. His header was hacked off the line by Jose Enrique but Chelsea had threatened little until the stroke of half-time. Then, Didier Drogba's deft flick was collected by Kalou. He turned Sol Campbell and struck a shot that Tim Krul probably had covered before a decisive deflection off Danny Simpson.

Each side could have won it. Kalou contrived to miss what amounted to an open goal, after persistence had taken him past Krul and Daniel Sturridge, an addition to Chelsea's attacking armoury, also came close.

At the other end, Ashley Cole headed the ball off his own line to deny Wayne Routledge, an interception made vital by the fact that Cech had come off his line to punch away a free kick.

"We conceded a goal too easily," said Ancelotti. "But the end of the first half and the second half was good. We had total control of the game. We deserved to win, I think."

While Chelsea's cast of the absent again incorporated Michael Essien, whose bite is much missed, Frank Lampard and John Terry, Newcastle were similarly depleted.

Both central defenders, Sol Campbell and Steven Taylor, were making a first Premier League start of the season and each acquitted himself well.

"The moments where we had to defend well, we defended very well," said Chris Hughton.

Threaten though they did, neither his side nor the falling snow could land a telling blow on Ancelotti or Chelsea. The visitors came away with a point, but their frustrations were not quite over - the plane they had chartered was weatherbound in Aberdeen in Scotland and they had to make an arduous return trip to London by coach.