Carlo Ancelotti has been a man under fire at Stamford Bridge, since his Chelsea sides calamitous mid-season slump, which saw them win just one league match in a two month period and fall from the top of the table into a position, albeit briefly, outside of the Champions League qualifying places.
Furthermore, rumours are currently cirulating that the Italian, who let us not forget won a domestic double with the Blues during his first campaign in English football last season, could well be on his way back to Italy at the end of the season.
In addition to the speculation emerging from abroad, is further talk, emanating from the clubs board no less, that despite recent improvements at Stamford Bridge, they will be re-evalutating Ancelotti’s position come the summer.
But if the 51-year-old is to leave, then could the two-times Champions League winning manager be about to make his exit with a second Premier League title in his pocket, and a first victory in European football’s premier club competition for his current employers?
No doubt about it, the wealthy aristocrats from West London are challengers for the Champions League. The quarter-final against Manchester United, who they’ve already beaten once this season, 2-1 during their recent Premier League clash at Stamford Bridge, will be a close, tense encounter.
Nevertheless, whoever wins will fancy their chances of stepping out at Wembley on May 28, knowing that Internazionale, the reigning champions who have been plagued by inconsistency this season, or Schalke 04, the struggling German club who have recently parted company with manager Felix Magath, await in the semi-finals.
In the final will come one of the Champions League’s most exciting foursome this season – the underdogs of Shakhtar Donetsk, Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham Hotspur, Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid or the mercurial talents of Lionel Messi and Barcelona – but there is nothing that an experienced Chelsea side should fear. They’ll know that on their day, they can compete with any of those sides.
Of more intrigue however, is their recent return to winning ways in the Premier League whilst others have faltered around them, thus giving them the chance, albeit slight, of retaining the title that they won with many a show of attacking force last season and which had looked so carelessly tossed aside between November 14 and January 5.
Somehow, with nine games remaining Ancelotti’s side sit in third place, buoyed by recent wins against both Manchester clubs, sitting nine points off the top of the table with a game in hand.
Despite an appalling middle to the season, at one point Chelsea took only six points from seven matches, only United and Arsenal sit above Ancelotti’s side in the table. And neither looks particularly secure.
It’s a Manchester United side that hasn’t been firing on all cylinders, for the most part this season and has won only four of 15 away matches – losing three of their last four – and who must still take on Chelsea and the Gunners.
To top that off, Sir Alex Ferguson is currently in the midst of a defensive injury crisis – Rio Ferdinand is unlikely to play again this season, whilst the dominant Nemanja Vidic, Brazilian full-back Rafael and John O’Shea have all recently picked up injuries and Jonny Evans faces a three-match ban – meaning that United’s position is far from unreachable.
The side from Old Trafford are battling to victories and scraping wins – such as the late 1-0 win over Bolton at the weekend – but they are giving other sides enough chances, something which will give Chelsea hope.
Arsenal on the other hand, are suffering the way in which they always suffer at this time of the season, ever since their last trophy win in 2005: Mentally.
Recent big occasions have passed them by, seeing them exit the League and FA Cups as well as the Champions League, where they appeared frightened of superior opponents, in the shape of Barcelona, the Spanish champions.
Not only that but errors have once again cost them dearly in the league and the mental fragility, and apparent lack of on-field leadership when things get tough, would appear to be making its way to the fore once more.
On paper, Arsene Wenger’s side have perhaps the easiest title run-in now but who would bet on them earning more points than both of their title rivals between now and the end of the season?
Which leaves us with a rejuvenated Chelsea squad, who during their dismal run appeared limp and lifeless, without the zest required for any sort of challenge, let alone a run for the title. The starting XI looked stale, whilst the bench was packed with inexperienced youngsters.
However, as the epitaths were written for the side and it’s experienced thirty-somethings – Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, John Terry – owner Roman Abramovich put his money in his pocket and spent in excess of £70m to snare striker Fernando Torres from Liverpool and David Luiz, the defender, from Benfica.
All of a sudden, competition for places is back at the Bridge, there is a hunger amongst the side, and the players are fighting to be successful again. The substitutes bench looks strong – at 0-0 with Manchester City on Sunday, Ancelotti made a double change in the 65th minute, bringing on Drogba and Anelka; Chelsea went on to win 2-0 – and players who had previously looked disinterested, are scrapping to prove their worth.
In fairness, the big-money move for Torres is yet to pay off, the Spaniard has yet to score since his move from Anfield.
But the mere signing of the World Cup and European Championship winner has lifted his team-mates, who know he is a player that can produce a moment of magic that could be the difference between winning and losing, whilst the Brazilian defender David Luiz has taken to life in English football like a duck to water.
With a youthful exuberance and a vivacious tenacity, Luiz has already become a cult hero amongst Chelsea supporters, with his Sideshow Bob hairstyle and his twin strikes against the Manchester clubs.
To quote Steve Claridge, the BBC analyst, “he looks a real player.”
Unforeseen by most, Ancelotti’s side are back in the title race, and getting somewhere back to their best. Throughout the season, the defensive side of their game hasn’t been in question. In fact, the Blues have the best defence in the league.
What they’re looking for now is to start scoring freely as they did throughout the last campaign. And although Torres and Drogba are struggling for goals, the side is looking ominously more forceful.
Brazilian midfielder Ramires is showing his best form since his summer arrival, no longer looking lightweight in the heart of the midfield action. Michael Essien is approaching something like his powerful best, whilst Lampard, after an injury-hit season, is making more of an impact.
Throw in Anelka and Salomon Kalou, both of whom have recently put in more energetic performances and Drogba, who appreciates that Ancelotti has the sides best interests at heart and is ready to back whatever decision his boss makes, then Chelsea are all pulling in the same direction – towards the top of the table.
In addition, and it is one of the most fundamental things in football that all winning sides have in their make-up, Chelsea once again have the look of a side that are enjoying their football, and are embracing the challenge of trying to hunt down the league leaders. As Luiz has stated , the players are still gunning for the Premier League title.
Ancelotti has earmarked that he wants nine league wins from their last nine league matches this season. What’s to say that a revitalised Chelsea can’t do just that to retain their league title?
Moreover, what’s to say that the Blues can’t finally conquer Europe, winning the five matches they could possibly play, lead by it’s Roman leader?
If Ancelotti can do such a thing, then he will have delivered the success that Abramovich has craved ever since he arrived in 2003 and started delving into his own personal fortune to make Chelsea competitive at the highest ecehlons of the game.
Should he deliver, then the Italian may well stay. The Chelsea fans would certainly be pleased if he does, as they have a good rapport with the former AC Milan boss, built out of respect for what he has previously achieved in the game and the humility with which he does his job.
But maybe, with no real backing about his future coming forthwith from the powers above, he’ll leave with his head held high echoing the words of another, somewhat more famous Roman General.
Veni, Vidi, Vici.
I came. I saw. I conquered.