Sunday, May 29, 2011

FC Barcelona - A Work of High Art

If there was any doubt preceding the game about the stature of this Barcelona team, it was put to rest in magisterial fashion. Manchester United were cut to ribbons in the final of the UEFA Champions League with a display of audacious class and merciless efficiency. Barcelona were simply irrepressible. A more beautiful victory one is unlikely to see. Perhaps they were aided by United’s timidity, an unwillingness to play dirty, an attribute that some may even consider commendable, but Barcelona’s display has taken them well into the pantheon of great footballing sides.

Let us, though, forget the scoreline – a commanding 3-1 – and concentrate for a moment on the methods, for it is the style of victory more than the score which is likely to define this epoch. At the core of Barcelona’s triumph, paradoxically, isn’t Lionel Messi, widely and rightly considered the best player in the world, but Xavi Hernandez their pint sized midfield maestro. Xavi is Barcelona’s ‘quarterback’, every attack flows through him and it is he who helps them command space with an air of hitherto unseen imperiousness. He passes the ball, both short and long, both in acute angles and in straight lines, both along the ground and in the air, with equal simplicity but never it seems without purpose. The purpose, if one were to define it, is a quest for space, a pursuit ingrained in the club’s philosophy by Johan Cruyff.

The blueprint for Barcelona’s play lies in the methods adopted by the great Ajax and the Netherlands sides of the late 1960s to early 1970s, in which Cruyff played the chief protagonist. Under the stewardship of Rinus Michels, football was revolutionalised. No doubt, it has unconsciously always been about space, but as artist Jeroen Henneman says in David Winner’s outstanding book, ‘The Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football’, “the big change in Dutch football happened when these ideas became words, when Cruyff and Michels started talking about space.”

Winner seeks to conceptualise this understanding of space. He draws parallels between Dutch architecture, art and football. He says: “’Total football’ was, among other things, a conceptual revolution based on the idea that the size of any football field was flexible and could be altered by a team playing on it. In possession, Ajax – and later the Dutch national team – aimed to make the pitch as large as possible, spreading play to the wings and seeing every run and movement as a way to increase and exploit the available space. ”

In many ways, Winner argues, this expansion of space is akin to the wonder that marks Dutch architecture. He says: “Because of their strange landscape, the Dutch are a nation of spatial neurotics… Space is an inordinately precious commodity, and for centuries the use of every square centimeter of every Dutch city, field and polder has been carefully considered and argued over.” This paucity, Winner says has contributed towards the Dutch thinking innovatively about space, a constant urge to find it where seemingly none exists, a philosophy that has been carried over to the football pitch.

Of course it is easy to argue that these are but tenuous links, utterly lacking in credence. But as Rudi Fuchs, a director of a modern art museum in Amsterdam argues in Winner’s book, ‘every country and culture has its own way of seeing.’ He says: “The psychologists deny these differences exist, but its there in Dutch art and culture. Ask any Dutch person to draw the horizon and they will draw a straight line. If you ask someone form Yorkshire or Tuscany or anywhere else, it will have bumps and hills. A Scandinavian blue is cold and steely, completely unlike a blue in Italy. Italian painting is rich in warm reds, but when red appears in the work of a northern artist like Munch, its blood in the snow.” He goes on to add that these ‘climatic and geographically shaped aesthetic differences are inevitably reflected in football.’ “Catenaccio is like a Titan painting – soft, seductive and languid. The Italians welcome and lull you and seduce you into their soft embrace, and score a goal like the thrust of a dagger. The Dutch make their geometric patterns… The English like to run and fight. When Gullit tried to transplant this Dutch art to Newcastle, he was trying to do something impossible. He was bound to fail.”

Pertinently, it may be noted that, Fuchs fails to mention Spain or in fact Catalunya. But it is there that Cruyff’s notion of space has found its most glorious recognition. Cruyff took Dutch art to Barcelona, and the club has augmented this conception through its own varying approaches to the creation of space.

(Also posted at: http://www.criticaltwenties.in/sport/fc-barcelona-a-work-of-high-art)

First, a look at the tactical basis that underpins the method. At Ajax and with the Netherlands, Michels and his successors adopted a fluid, flexible 4-3-3 with a centre-back pushing forward whenever possible to make it a 3-4-3. Essentially, though, these positional notations were only that – notations. In practice, the system involved rapid interchange of positions, wingers finding themselves in central defense, central midfielders moving into full back, and so on. For all its attacking vitality, it is important to note that defensive solidity was never compromised, if the left back was caught up field, one of the central midfielders was always on hand to cover the space. The inherent philosophy, as Jonathan Wilson points out in this piece for the Guardian, was simple – ‘pass and move when in possession, squeeze the play when out of it.’

In many ways, the Ajax philosophy served as the template for Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan side and the more recent Arsenal team under Arsene Wenger. The idea, though, has stayed at the forefront of Barcelona’s thinking ever since Michels moved to the club as coach in 1971, with Cruyff joining him two years later. Their axis hadn’t the success that it had at Ajax, but nonetheless the processes were put in place. During Cruyff’s six-year tenure as a player, the club won only a single La Liga title. Its ethos though was altered. Success alone wasn’t what the club craved for, but success through a certain style.

Between Cruyff’s time as a player and when he re-joined the club as manager in 1988, it won the Championship only once, in 1984-85 under Terry Venables. But once Cruyff took over the reins, the contours of the club were dramatically altered, laying the basis for its greatness, which has been achieved with rare panache. The club won four consecutive La Ligas between 1990-91 and 1993-94, playing a seductive, fearsome brand of football that emphasized a mastery over space. At its pivot was Josep Guardiola, the current Barcelona manager. He was the Xavi of the ‘Dream Team’, the one who took control of the ball in the middle of the park, acting as the conductor of the orchestra. The expansive style of the Dream Team, though, whilst magnificent to watch, had its drawbacks. Relevantly, it won the Champions League only once, in 1991-92, losing 4-0 in the final two years later to Fabio Capello’s AC Milan. The team containing Guardiola, Romario, Stoichkov and Koeman was undone by a disciplined Milan effort that was aimed at targeting specific weaknesses of Barcelona – particularly spaces behind their fullbacks, which were ruthlessly exposed by Dejan Savicevic.

Cruyff’s contributions to Barcelona though do not end there. In 1979, he played a pivotal role in convincing the then President of the club, Josep Nunez, in remodeling La Masia, the club’s academy to accommodate a greater number of students, and centering its methods on the famed Ajax academy. Instilled in the youngsters at La Masia are the philosophies of Cruyff. Apprentices are taught to think innovatively, to think in terms of space. They are trained to press and compress space when defending and expand the playing area when in attack. Amongst its foremost and earliest graduates was Guardiola himself and Guillermo Amor, both of whom played fundamental roles in the Dream Team’s success.

Since then, the academy has produced a battery of stars, all entrenched in the Barcelona way, including Carles Puyol, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique, Pedro Rodriguez and Victor Valdes. The success of the first team for a period was steady, without being spectacular. In 2005-06, the club won the Champions League for the second time in its history, under the management of Frank Riijkard – more indications of a Dutch touch. But while Xavi and Puyol played important roles, the win was essentially achieved through the attacking flair of Ronaldinho, a Brazilian bought from Paris St. German. Much of its football was eye-catching, but the manner of the victory was rarely imperious. Defensively, the team had many frailties, and its methods were far from the flawlessness that is now on show. Following a second consecutive season without league triumph in 2007-08, Riijkard was shown the door, and Guardiola, who was then the head coach of the “B’ team, took over.

And since then there football has attained otherworldliness. They have won the Spanish league title in each of the last three years and the Champions League twice, all the while adhering to the high ideals of Cryuff. Opponents have been forced into submission through a graceful, enthralling style of football. But Guardiola has not merely aped Cruyff in his methods. The basic paradigm, no doubt, remains the same, but the nature of the pressing game that today’s Barcelona play is more complete. It hasn’t the totality of the Ajax sides of the 1970s – indeed it is implausible for a team to play on such lines in today’s tactical regime – but it involves pressing from the top in a manner, perhaps, never witnessed in the past.

Without the ball, as Guadiola often points out, ‘Barcelona are a disastrous team’. So they hound like a pack of chasing wolves from the front, compressing space the moment they lose the ball. Messi, Villa and Pedro are renowned for their attacking prowess, but they play just as crucial a role defensively. They pursue the opposition in every corner of the pitch – even simple passes rolled out from the opposition’s goalkeeper to one of his defenders is not spared. For Barcelona, possession is the foundation for both attack and defence. Once they win the ball back, though, they retain it with √©lan for what seems like ages. In the Champions League this season, they have kept possession of the ball on an average of about 70% of the time every game, an astonishingly brilliant figure.

There is of course a criticism that at times their passing can be tedious, an end in itself, which often strips an element of fun out of their game. This, though, is a matter of aesthetics. Perhaps their style isn’t as thrillingly gorgeous as the Ajax and the Netherlands teams of the early 1970s, but as Simon Barnes once remarked of complaints against Pete Sampras being too boring, if you find excellence tedious, then sport is not what you should look towards.

Guardiola has ensured that the Cruyff philosophy remains the basis for Barcelona’s play, but by getting his team to relentlessly press the opposition in all areas of the pitch, he has augmented the model even further. As Sir Alex Ferguson said: "Guardiola has created a different philosophy for Barcelona. I think the Cruyff era laid the foundation for the width they used in their game and using the full size of the pitch. If you look at their midfield players over the last 20 years, they have all been small. What has changed is the pressing and the areas in which they press the ball. That is what Guardiola has brought to the team.

The beauty in Barcelona’s play, ironically for a team that plays with such elegance, lies in their discipline, exemplified best by Xavi. He presses the opposition hard, and when he is given the ball, he almost never loses it – evident from the fact that he converted 124 out of the 136 passes he attempted in the Final, more than the entire Manchester United midfield put together. The laboured accusation that Xavi only passes the ball sideways and a lack of directness means that it is easy to boast of such statistics falls like a leaf at the peak of autumn.

A glimpse at the opening goal scored by Pedro in the Final is enough to convince one of Xavi’s supreme talents. It was an education in practical passing. He sauntered near the edge of the United box, waiting for players to flit around in front of him, until the perfect opportunity presented itself. And when Pedro darted outwards, even as the drifting Messi took Evra inwards with him, Xavi played the ball diagonally to Pedro, with the weight on the pass and its direction immaculate. As Cruyff says, the simple ball is what is very often the most elegant solution. Arriving at that simple ball, though, takes genius and Xavi belongs to a rare species that possesses that special gift.

It is a testament also to Guardiola’s talents that he has ensured that his team’s standards never dip. They of course possess the sheer unexplainable brilliance of Messi, who can win games on his own. But it is as a collective unit that they are most impressive. Guardiola has constructed a work of art that is no doubt based on conceptions of space theorized by Cruyff, but by imparting his own contributions in terms of pressing and an ability to defend in numbers, he has made an imprint that transcends all boundaries of greatness. For instance, in Dani Alves, Barcelona have a marauding right back, who is crucial to their attacking plans. But when Alves attacks, Sergio Busquets unfailingly sits deep to cover for the space that can open up behind the fullback. This is but an example to display their adherence to all aspects of the game. Every player in the side is attuned to the team’s methods – pass and move and look for space.

Perhaps, Guardiola’s work in moulding a team of such mesmeric brilliance is like that of Antoni Guadi, the great Catalan architect, who adhered to tradition even while creating the most modern of structures. Guardiola may not go on to create an impregnable empire, but his side has already done enough to go down in the annals of history as one of the greatest of all time.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Best and the Worst of 2010-11

The Guardian’s football writers as they do at the end of every season have picked their best and worst from the 2010-11 Premier League season. Here are my selections in the same categories:

Best goal Littered in Dimitar Berbatov’s league topping tally of goals were some of the most awe-inspiring finishes, of which none was finer than the second of his three goals against Liverpool in Manchester United’s 3-2 victory at Old Trafford. Perhaps, Wayne Rooney’s winner in the Manchester Derby was a cleaner strike, a more technically perfect volley, if you will, but Berbatov’s finish reeked of unadulterated class. His entire movement, first to lift the ball up for the volley and then the strike in itself, was so languid yet majestically elegant that time seemed to stand still – a goal for the ages.

Best match The 4-4 draw between Newcastle United and Arsenal is a popular choice, and rightly so. To come back from 4-0 down against a club competing for the title is no joke, but in many ways it’s been a joke of a season for Arsenal. Their defensive frailties were in abundant evidence on that February afternoon, and when Cheik Tiote produced a splendid, rasping volley to equalise, the stadium erupted like only St. James’ Park can.

Best player Again, a well-liked choice, but Luka Modric has been an absolute joy to behold. The little Croatian’s touch, vision and passing have been extraordinarily crucial to Tottenham’s run this season. Modric’s light frame induced questions of his suitability to the hurly burly of the English game. But over the last two seasons, he has not only proven his capacity to adapt to the league, but has shown himself to be adept at playing in a two-man central midfield, as a box-to-box playmaker, the rarest of species in Rob Smyth’s words.

Best manager Blackpool’s football was at times this season as vivid as their tangerine coloured jerseys, but their gloriously cruel relegation means that Ian Holloway narrowly misses out on the gong. I will instead stick to the prosaic choice, Sir Alex Ferguson for leading Manchester United to its historic 19th league title, the 12th under his reign.

Best signing Signed for pittance (believed to be about 2.5 million pounds) in the summer, Peter Odemwingie has been a revelation for West Bromwich Albion. His 15 goals in 32 league appearances have been crucial to their survival in the Premier League.

Biggest flop It’s a toss up between Joe Cole and Fernando Torres, but the latter will have to bear the greater ignominy, purely down to his price tag. Signed for 50 million pounds by Chelsea in January, he’s regularly looked a forlorn figure. His touch and his movement are a shadow of what they were two years back, and most significantly he’s scored only 1 goal in 14 appearances for his new club.

Best pundit Viewers in India have to often make-do with Steve McMahon and Paul Parker who spit out inanities in the name of punditry. Jamie Reeves offers the rare relief.

Main gripe The League’s refusal to review incidents on the basis of a referee having seen it and decided against acting on it.

Change I’d like to see for next season. It’s high time FIFA embraces goal-line technology.

Is it the best league in the world? Like Barry Glendenning says, it depends on the definition of ‘best’. The Bundesliga is perhaps the most balanced league in the world, but its short on quality. The rift in class between Barcelona and Real Madrid, and the other clubs in Spain makes the La Liga an ultimately mundane affair. The Serie A has certainly regressed in recent years, as can be seen from the performance of its clubs in the Champions League. So I’ll probably go with the Premier League at the moment. It has enough quality and it certainly keeps me captivated.

(Also posted in http://www.criticaltwenties.in/sport/the-best-and-the-worst-of-2010-11)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Roland Garros and the Prospect of a New Champion

Of all the Grand Slam tournaments, I love the French Open – or if you prefer, as I do, its more endearing name, Roland Garros – the most. This is seemingly an odd choice. Most people are entranced by Wimbledon and its exquisite grass courts and its glorious history – it is after all the home of tennis. But Roland Garros has a matchless charm to it. The ‘terre battue’ – the handsome red clay - the sublimity of the Parisian weather, the official trilby hat adorning the head of most people in the crowd, add to the allure of the tennis, which is more varied than on any other surface.

Tennis at Roland Garros is the ultimate test of endurance. Best of five set matches filled with long, draining rallies that encompass the full repertoire of a tennis player’s armoury – baseline strokes heavy on top spin, rallies filled with cheeky drop shots and lobs hit with diverse spin means that very often the dominance over a single rally can swing like a pendulum. A player who looks crushed one moment can still recover to win a point, provided of course he possesses the wherewithal to do so. But the fact that the surface offers such an opportunity means that it very often makes for a riveting spectacle.

This year’s tournament, which commences tomorrow, has the potential to be particularly memorable. In what is sure to beggar the belief of the more casual tennis fans, Rafael Nadal will not begin as the overwhelming favourite. Not too long ago, a few days before the Australian Open began, I asked where the next Federers and Nadals were. Since then, Novak Djokovic has gone on a 37-0 winning run (39-0 if one includes his victories in December), emerging triumphant in seven tournaments, including at Melbourne, rendering my question gloriously futile. Its futility, though, is not because Djokovic is on the verge of entering the pantheon of great tennis players – which he may well do at some point in his career – but because his winning streak has convincingly shattered the existing duopoly at the top of the men’s game.

Djokovic’s run has seen him defeat Nadal in four finals, two of which were on clay, a surface on which the Spaniard is, but for Bjorn Borg, recognized as the greatest exponent. As winning streaks at the start of a year go, the Serb trails only John McEnroe, who won 42 consecutive matches in 1984, at a time when even by McEnroe’s own admission, tennis wasn’t as demanding as it is today. The numbers, though, as remarkable as they may be, tell only a part of the story.

It is Djokovic’s assurance in the big games, and his tremendous ball-striking abilities on the tennis court, which he has paraded never more dazzlingly than in recent months that have been most spectacular. He possesses an innate sense of the geometry of a tennis court, enabling him to convert defence into attack – perhaps his greatest virtue – in the matter of a single stroke, irrespective of his position on the court. But then, these are assets that he has always possessed even if they have been sharpened in recent times. What is it then that has been the chief factor behind his ascent? Some say it has to do with his new gluten-free diet, while others point towards Serbia’s victory in the Davis Cup last December from which he has gained enormous self-confidence. Perhaps, it has to do with an astonishing improvement to his game – his forehand is a far more assured stroke now and his serve, once an unreliable weapon at times of crisis has never been more secure.

If I were asked though to isolate a turning point, a seminal moment that has contributed towards his rise, I would find it difficult to look beyond his victory over Federer in the 2010 US Open semifinals. Very often, a player even of the richest talents can lack the self-confidence required to make the most of his skills. Djokovic, since his Australian Open victory in 2008 has regularly reached the latter stages of Grand Slams only to succumb to big-match pressure. Against Federer, though, at Flushing Meadows, down two match points on his serve at 4-5 in the fifth set, he produced a brace of breathtaking winners that have set him on the path towards the number one ranking. Admittedly, he lost in the final to Nadal, but the match was played a day after his grueling five setter against Federer. A loss at the season ending Masters in London to Federer in the semifinals may indicate that his victory at New York wasn’t after all so seminal. But by that time his focus had been diverted to the Davis Cup final at Belgrade, which he helped Serbia clinch with a display of tennis that was as exhilarating as it was sublime.

Since then his deeds have been well documented. He says he doesn’t believe he is unbeatable – and rightly so – but he plays his tennis with a sagacious serenity in spite of a sprinkling of madness between points. A scream in agony or a tennis racquet broken in rage have never brought the best out of anyone, in recent times, in the manner in which it seems to, from Djokovic.

From a French Open perspective, it is his form in Madrid and Rome that serve as the key talking points. In neither tournament was his progress to the final seamless. At Madrid he won tough three-setters against David Ferrer and Thomaz Belluci in the quarterfinal and semifinal respectively. At Rome he was on the verge of elimination in the semifinal against Andy Murray, but his newfound self-belief saw him through, ultimately via a tiebreaker in the deciding set. Crucially, though, against Nadal, both at Madrid and Rome, Djokovic clinched victory in two straight sets. He was able to up his game when it mattered most – a sign that he has indeed come of age. The victories were so utterly imperious. In both matches, he pulverized Nadal from the back of the court, constantly directing his backhands crosscourt to the Spaniard’s forehand – widely recognized as his strong suit. Nadal has won Roland Garros five times in the last six years and it may be imprudent to not consider him as the favourite. But his title has perhaps never been at greater risk than it is in the coming fortnight, at the end of which, we may well have a new man at the summit of men’s tennis.

(Also posted at: http://www.criticaltwenties.in/sport/roland-garros-and-the-prospect-of-a-new-champion)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Roman's Likely Folly

Carlo Ancelotti, a season after leading Chelsea to the League and Cup double, looks increasingly likely to be relieved of his duties as manager at the end of this month. This is of course not the least bit surprising when one considers Roman Abramovich’s record as owner of Chelsea. And it is perhaps not even unfair when considering the severance package that Ancelotti may receive and the conditions under which he accepted the job in the first place.

But from a pure footballing standpoint, sacking Ancelotti would be unarguably imprudent. Here is a manager whose tactical abilities are unquestionable; a winner of 2 Champions League titles and one scudetto in addition to the Premier League trophy last season. Add to that one of the prime reasons for his appointment by Abramovich – his ability to work under the stress of overbearing owners. At AC Milan, many off-field decisions – and perhaps even a few on-field ones – were made by Silvio Berlusconi. Ancelotti, though, continued with little fuss and delivered results without ever losing his integrity.

It is never easy to attain instant success and yet Ancelotti managed that at Chelsea last season with an ageing squad that often seemed devoid of inspiration. Chelsea played with a flair unknown to Abramovich’s reign at the club and they seemed to have finally found the perfect fusion of style and success. In the summer, Michael Ballack, Deco, Juliano Belletti and Ricardo Carvalho were all released and the resultant, gaping void was sought to be filled through an infusion of youngsters that included Josh McEachran, Gael Kakuta and Daniel Sturridge – in line with the owner’s sudden desire to promote players from within the club’s youth set-up.

With injuries, though, afflicting the squad at various junctures – Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, John Terry, Jose Bosingwa, Yossi Benayoun and Alex missed large parts of the season – Chelsea seemed ill-equipped to mount a title-challenge, finding themselves fifteen points behind Manchester United in March. Yet, following a defeat of United, they went through a superb run of form that saw them close the lead to 3 points before their crucial return leg at Old Trafford against United this past Sunday. Admittedly, United outshone the Champions, surely stripping them of their coveted crown with a thrilling exhibition of attacking football that laid bare several of Chelsea’s weaknesses, which were just as apparent in the club’s Champions League quarterfinal loss earlier in the season.

The Chelsea backbone, Frank Lampard and John Terry both look to be well past their prime, necessitating an infusion of new, yet experienced talent. The signing of Fernando Torres – for an exorbitant 50 million pounds – seemingly against Ancelotti’s wishes only made matters worse. A change in system to incorporate Torres into the line-up failed miserably, and ultimately the Spaniard had to be used off the bench to ensure that the team balance is maintained.

But by coming so close to the title in spite of having an injury ridden squad in addition to numerous other hassles, Ancelotti clearly established his managerial talents. Give him the time to build a squad of his choice, and results will only be inevitable. Chelsea, very obviously, need to find replacements for Lampard and Terry, and may have to sign a conventional winger or a midfielder of proven creativity to bring the best out of Torres. To sack Ancelotti though, and entrust the rebuilding responsibilities to a new manager would be heedless.

For one, there are hardly any viable options available to Abramovich in terms of potential replacements for Ancelotti. Let’s consider, first, the case for Guus Hiddink, the Russian’s favoured choice, assuming unlikely as it may be that Hiddink is in fact ready to take up the mantle. Hiddink hasn’t managed a club, barring his brief spell as interim manager of Chelsea in 2009, since his admittedly successful stint with PSV Eindhoven between 2002 and 2006. Since then he has led the Australian National team to the 2008 World Cup Finals knockout rounds and the Russian National team to the semi-finals of Euro 2008. But he also failed in his efforts to help Russia qualify for the 2010 World Cup and the Turkish national team, which he currently manages, is struggling to qualify for the 2012 European Championships.

As a manager, Hiddink has often exhibited supreme tactical brilliance and an ability to bring the best out of a limited bunch of footballers – as can be seen from South Korea’s phenomenal run in the 2002 World Cup Finals. But he has enjoyed scanty success as manager of clubs, barring his stints at PSV – with whom he won six Eredivisie titles and the European Cup in 1988. His time at Fenerbache, Real Madrid and Real Betis all ended in displeasing failure, while at Valencia, although he may have introduced an eye-catching brand of football, his team was anything but successful. Of course, his temporary spell at Chelsea, in which he reinvigorated the side leading them to an FA Cup triumph, could be used as an indicator of his abilities. This, though, must be seen in the larger context of an absence of any pressure in the way of a fear-of-the-sack – as Hiddink was clearly in charge only for a brief period. Apart from his record at PSV, where the demands of the game are not comparable to that at Chelsea, he has little to show in the way of sustained success. I am by no means suggesting that Hiddink is an ordinary manager – he is anything but that. An implication, though, that he is better placed than Ancelotti to re-build Chelsea’s squad is highly questionable, particularly when considering Ancelotti’s prior managerial record and the fact that he has spent two seasons at Chelsea, in which he would have surely understood, better than most, the requirements of the club.

Other managers touted as potential replacements include Andre Villas-Boas, Marco van Basten, Harry Redknapp and Mark Hughes. Villas-Boas, christened by the Press as the next Mourinho, is only 33 and is in his first season as manager of Porto. He is no doubt unbeaten in the League and has led his side to next week’s Europa League final against Braga. But to replace Ancelloti with Villas-Boas, as talented a coach as he may be, could be potentially disastrous. Van Basten – who had a recent, forgettable spell with Ajax – would be an even riskier appointment. Redknapp, though, has done well in his time at Tottenham Hotspur, showcasing rare tactical nous against top quality Italian sides, but it is unlikely that he will offer anything better than what Ancelotti can. Hughes had his time with aggressive new owners at Manchester City and while his credentials weren’t particularly worsened by the stint, they certainly weren’t further strengthened.

Ancelotti has undoubtedly come short in this season’s battle, but there are few as well equipped as the Italian to oversee Chelsea’s rebuilding. He has also failed to match the club’s ambitions in the Champions League, but his experience of having won the trophy on two occasions with AC Milan means that he is best placed to lead the club’s charge on the European front. These arguments, though, it must be said, are unlikely to stop Abramovich from sacking the Italian, an inevitable event, if there ever was one.

It is not Ancelotti’s inherent decency, though, as has been suggested in some quarters which should count in his favour, but his managerial abilities which rank amongst the best in the world.

Also posted at: http://www.criticaltwenties.in/sport/romans-likely-folly)