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)

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