SERENITY has been in short supply at Stamford Bridge in recent years, but Chelsea are appreciating the tranquility that has accompanied Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival.
After swatting aside all-comers on the domestic front, Ancelotti made a winning start in the Champions League last night thanks to Nicolas Anelka’s strike early in the second half. There was an element of luck in the goal, with Anelka requiring two attempts to force the ball past Helton, the Porto goalkeeper, and the hosts’ performance was almost as damp as the weather in west London.
Even so, as an Italian, Ancelotti will appreciate the value of an instantly forgettable victory. Standards will have to be raised if Roman Abramovich’s much-cherished dream of a first Champions League is to be realised but at least points are on the board.
“If we win all the games, we can play well or not – it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Sometimes, we just have to win without playing well. That’s important for the team because it’s impossible to play well all the time. Sometimes we need other characteristics.”
It was not simply the points that cheered Ancelotti. Joe Cole, fit again after nine months out with a knee injury, made the substitutes’ bench and Anelka’s strike was timely in the absence of the suspended Didier Drogba.
Chelsea are not as formidable a proposition in the absence of their Ivorian talisman, and they were laboured for 45 minutes here, but in Anelka they boast a striker whose ruthlessness in front of goal is at least the equal of Drogba, who is not due to return until the November return in Porto.
“He is a great player, with or without Drogba,” Ancelotti added. “He can play alone in the centre of attack or together with Drogba. I am very happy for him – he is doing very well for the team now.”
The Champions League might have developed a reputation as a cursed tournament for Chelsea but such an apocalyptic view needs perspective. The club’s exits from this competition may have been mired either in sulphurous controversy or wretched bad luck – and often both – but their record remains formidable.
Five semi-finals in six seasons suggests they should once again make light work of reaching the knockout stage, despite Porto’s spiky resistance at soggy Stamford Bridge.
The days when the Portuguese ruled the continent under a certain Jose Mourinho are a fading memory but, even in the Champions League, a mired in predictability in recent years, there remains the potential for surprises. The shock here came in Chelsea’s sloppy attitude in the opening stages, with Ancelotti’s side apparently confident Porto would glance at the teamsheet and accept their fate.
Such notions were exposed as fanciful in the first seven minutes, when Petr Cech was forced to awkwardly deflect Hulk’s skidding low shot around the post with his knees and then, from the resulting corner, Cristian Rodriguez planted a free header just over the crossbar.
That should have banished any lingering complacency yet, bizarrely, Chelsea remained slapdash. Passes were pinged aimlessly, shots scuffed and even Ancelotti’s most reliable performers allowed their standards to slip.
Frank Lampard, for one, was horribly out of sorts, directing one free header straight at the grateful Helton and another so far past the post it needed to be viewed in widescreen.
John Terry was briefly knocked unconscious in that first half after a clash with Bruno Alves but recovered and continued the game.
Ancelotti needed to deliver a few choice words at the interval and, whatever his linguistic limitations, he clearly made his point. Within three minutes of the restart Chelsea were ahead. Anelka collected Salomon Kalou’s pass and, after seeing his initial shot beaten away by Helton, lifted the rebound high into the net at the far post.
That should have soothed Chelsea’s nerves but, despite a bright spell in which Kalou saw a firm header well saved by Helton, Porto remained the livelier attackers. Hulk drove into the side-netting and Cech was forced into a smart save from Silvestre Verela.
But there was no late drama and Porto had to stomach more frustration just before the final whistle, when Fernando was dismissed for a second bookable offence, a clumsy tackle on Ashley Cole. At Chelsea, however, all remains calm – for now, at least.
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