THE arrival of Roberto Mancini at Manchester City may have unanticipated benefits for the man who sits in the other main Premier League hot seat – Carlo Ancelotti is now no longer the Italian new boy talking pidgin English who has to deliver silverware to an impatient owner. Or else.
Ancelotti has been experiencing his most difficult period since his long-trumpeted arrival at Stamford Bridge in the summer. Since demolishing Arsenal at the end of November his side has won only once in six games, was dumped out of the Carling Cup after a tactical miscalculation by the Italian, and he had to deal with fall-out over allegations that made England captain John Terry look like a passable impersonation of Arthur Daley, the spiv car dealer.
Add to that two tricky-looking games over Christmas away to Birmingham and home to Fulham followed by the departure of four players, including the redoubtable Didier Drogba, to the African Cup of Nations and you might expect a frown to be stitched across the bucolic features of the farmer’s son from Reggiolo in Northern Italy.
But Ancelotti is unfazed and relaxed, as he might be after building a career serving some of Europe’s most powerful men. Before working for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at AC Milan for eight years he was coach at Juventus when it was owned by Gianni Agnelli, the industrialist and principal shareholder of Fiat. And he was a player under that notorious disciplinarian Fabio Capello during the latter stages of his career at AC Milan. In fact it was the England manager who eased Ancelotti out of the team. These experiences have given the 50-year-old a certain stoicism, as well as a wry humour which has played well in his press conferences in England and which couldn’t be more in contrast with the clouds of sulphur which trailed around one of his predecessors, José Mourinho – or “His Specialness” as Ancelotti would call him when they were rivals at the San Siro last season.
It’s a rivalry which will be re-ignited in February and March in the glamour tie of the Champions League Round of 16.
“Abramovich is like Berlusconi,” says Ancelotti. “He has a passion for his club, he likes to speak about football, as does Berlusconi.
“Both of them like to watch football on television. After a game he comes to the dressing room.”
This can foment danger for a manager, as can the chattering of the range of courtiers in the Abramovich circle, and these were factors that led to an irretrievable breakdown between the volatile Portuguese coach and the Russian billionaire.
But Ancelotti shrugs: “Roman can speak with anybody. I don’t have a problem, for I have confidence in myself.
“I never think that if I don’t win games Roman will remove me. My aim is to do the best for this club, as I have done for other clubs.”
That “best” includes being the only person to have won the Champions League twice as both a player and a coach and working alongside some of the world’s greatest players. And it is his relationship with the players that Ancelotti views as central to his philosophy.
Frank Lampard recently said that while Capello was a stern disciplinarian, Ancelotti was more “laid back.” But the Italian describes this as treating his players with respect. “I want to have us at the same level, a man-to-man relationship,” he said.
Despite last weekend’s claims about Terry – that he was selling personalised tours of the plush Chelsea HQ at Cobham without the knowledge of the club – Ancelotti could not be happier with his centre-half: “Terry is like Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini in personality, character and leadership. I am very lucky to have this player as my captain.”
While this would be a typically loyal response he is also full of praise for another player who has been habitually targeted by the media.
“I don’t know what happened to Ashley Cole before he came here from Arsenal but for me he is a fantastic player, a good guy. He always likes to joke, always has a smile and gives no problems.”
Cole is playing some of the best football of his career, and has benefited from Ancelotti’s switch to a diamond formation although the Italian acknowledges that he does not currently possess the personnel to play that to best effect with summer interest in Franck Ribéry and Xavi Alonso being turned away.
Now Chelsea are being linked with the major January signing of Sergio Agüero, the 21-year-old son-in-law of Diego Maradona who plays for Atlético Madrid, who would certainly give them a different kind of option in attack. But if that falls through he will rely on refreshing his team with a trio of talented young players, Fabio Borini, the now-famous Gaël Kakuta, and the highly promising Dutch defender Jeffery Bruma.
“We have fantastic young players here and, in the future, I want to put them in the squad. Fabio Borini played against Portsmouth, Gaël Kakuta played in the Carling Cup, Jeffrey Bruma as well – we have very good talent.”
ANCELOTTI – who has set up home in the Surrey countryside near the Cobham HQ – has settled well in England and appreciates that he is able to go about his business without being mobbed by well-wishers and the media.
For him there is just one blot on his football paradise. The pre-match dressing room music.
“It is rap music” he says “I want to change to Elton John but (another shrug) it is impossible.”
Ancelotti is also unusual among Premier League managers in that he is religious, and is prepared to talk about it. But his favourite anecdotes always refer back to his agricultural roots.
“My father made parmesan. It matured and then you sell. After one year you receive the money, you had to wait, you had to have patience.”
Ancelotti knows that he hasn’t got quite the right ingredients for his tactical plan at present. But he is prepared to wait, with equanimity. If he is allowed time to do that then Roman Abramovich may at last get a team which does not only have success, but also the style he craves.
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