The old men of Chelsea have rejoined the ranks of also-rans

IT’S hard to dislike Carlo Ancelotti. He has none of Wenger’s waspish wit, or Mourinho’s bombast, or Fergie’s cunningly calibrated outrageousness.

He simply bumbles along, in his cuddly-bear manner, a harmless character who has now, surely, been dealt a mortal blow by that serial hunter of managers, Sir Alex of Govan.

Carlo was, typically, thoroughly decent in defeat the other night, stating that United were the better team and deserved to go through, thus short-circuiting all the Blues fans’ complaints about the first leg’s refereeing decisions. You can imagine if the boot was on the other foot that Ferguson would be facing calls for a charge after lambasting the officials, and banning any journalists within ten miles of Old Trafford for daring to breathe a word of dissent.

Such is the nature of a born winner, something which Ancelotti just isn’t, despite his Double last season and occasional gongs with Milan. When the Italian bowled up in England, I wrote a couple of pieces pasting him for his underachievements in Italy, a poor record that ignored by UK hacks distracted by the gleam of his European Cups.

Yes, he did the Double last season — but so what? Essentially he was handed the keys to a top of the range Ferrari, superbly constructed by his predecessors and funded by endless wealth, and then simply asked to drive it around the track without crashing into a wall slightly faster than on its previous run-out. Hardly a Herculean task, nor feat.

A United team that is not our very best vintage duly showed his outfit up at Old Trafford; Chelsea seemed slow, old, tired, and almost totally without the sheer physical power we have grown accustomed to seeing on display. It is hard to recognise Lampard as the same man who once so dominated proceedings in Moscow, or Torres as the then-feared destroyer of Vidic. The spell has been broken: to us, Chelsea have rejoined the ranks of the also-rans.

Of course, this re-ranking may only be temporary: you’d expect Roman, despite all the CFC corporate bulls**t about financial controls, to throw another heap of money at the club and perhaps make one last desperate appeal to Jose. But according to my informed chaps in Portugal, Jose now only has eyes for Manchester if he comes back to England.

Which brings me, therefore, to United, and the two words we try not to over-test Fergie with: ‘treble’ and ‘retirement’. It seems credible that a team we Reds have spent a lot of this season moaning about might yet emulate the feats of 1999, but there it is: the bookies’ shortish odds tell a story that cannot be ignored.

This tie has added two more factors to the ever-growing list of Reasons To Believe: the unexpected sudden return to pre-Rome form by Michael Carrick, and the serenity of Ryan Giggs, whose two assists at O.T. spoke of a player reaching some kind of autumnal apotheosis.

Admittedly, the opposing Reasons To Disbelieve column has one simple word blotting out every other consideration like a stellar eclipse: Barca. But that’d be getting ahead of ourselves. We don’t forget what happened in 1997 and 2002’s semi-finals against under-estimated Germans — nor the more obvious, pressing concern that we could all be on our asses as soon as Saturday night, whimpering as jubilant Bitters dance on our heads.

And that other word, ‘retirement’? Console yourselves with this if we fall at one of these imminent fences: at least it’d mean Alex will stay. For if we do the Treble, surely not even a egomaniac like Fergie will pass up the golden opportunity to out-class his hero Sinatra...

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