SHIRTLESS, thigh-bandaged, John Terry made his way towards the Stamford Bridge dressing rooms and embraced Carlo Ancelotti as he left the pitch.
Ancelotti insisted the hug was simply a gesture he wanted to extend to all his players after a convincing victory that had restored Chelsea to the top of the Premier League table and all but killed off Arsenal’s hopes of challenging for the title.
And from Ancelotti’s point of view, that may well be the truth.
Viewed from Terry’s perspective, however, it’s impossible not to believe that the player was expressing his gratitude to a manager who has stood foursquare behind him amidst a flurry of allegations about the player’s private life.
Ancelotti has made it absolutely clear he draws a line between the private and the professional.
And when that line blurs, as it did on Friday when Terry was stripped of the England captaincy by Fabio Capello, the Chelsea manager swiftly distinguished between club and country matters.
At a time when Terry badly needs friends, he has found a loyal and unswerving one in Ancelotti.
And he responded with another towering performance – his third since the first in a series of revelations were made public – capped by an assist for the opening goal that showed that whatever his failings, Terry knows how to handle himself on a football pitch.
Of course, Ancelotti wasn’t Terry’s only ally yesterday.
There were thousands of them, filling all areas of the stadium save for the corner reserved for visiting fans whose inevitable taunts and goading were drowned out by regular chants of ‘there’s only England captain’.
There’s nothing new about Terry being hailed as a Chelsea hero. He has been for years and in the eyes of the club’s supporters can do no wrong, despite a regular drip-feed of unsavoury allegations relating to any number of vices – drink, sex, money, outrageous behaviour in public – over the years and his popularity has never waned.
And with t-shirts proclaiming ‘Team Terry; He Scores at the Bridge’ on display outside the ground before the game, that’s not going to change any time soon.
From the moment Terry’s name was read out before kick-off and greeted with a resounding cheer to the moment he took off his shirt and threw it into the crowd after the final whistle, this was one long rally of support.
For many Chelsea fans, Capello’s decision to strip Terry of the national captaincy is not one that has been made on football grounds. Instead, they view the Italian move as a sign of him weakening in the face of overblown moral indignation, a wave of hysteria drummed up against one of their own.
This was their chance to show Terry he was not alone.
And the player responded in a manner that would only guarantee it became more intense as the game wore on.
Having headed the winner at Burnley last weekend, the centre-back this time flicked a near post header towards Didier Drogba who volleyed home at the far post.
Terry avoided the mass celebrations, but his role in the goal hadn’t been overlooked. Then, as Arsenal rallied and applied pressure, Terry the defender came to the fore with a number of trademark blocks and challenges before leading an unlikely breakaway down the left hand flank moments before half-time to feverish acclaim. He wasn’t showboating, but it had exactly the same effect.
Throughout the game he was in constant communication with Ancelotti and it was telling that after Drogba had scored his stunning second goal, Terry immediately went to his coach to exchange words on tactics. Or maybe he was again saying thanks. Whatever it was, it reinforced the view that the pair are very much working in tandem.
Terry’s show-stopper came midway through the second half when he hobbled off after a mid-air collision with his own keeper, Petr Cech.
He returned with his thigh heavily strapped – and immediately intercepted a dangerous looking cross. The scriptwriters would have been proud.
Ancelotti concluded the mutual love-in. “My captain has a fantastic attitude,” he said. “He’s doing very well every game. For the team it’s very important to have this leadership, he is always in control of the game. Really, he has a strong mentality. For sure he is the perfect captain for Chelsea”
And Ancelotti insisted he couldn’t care less that Fabio Capello has taken the England armband off Terry. “I wasn’t disappointed. It’s not my decision and I don’t want to judge it,” he added.
Even Arsene Wenger was moved to speak positively about Terry. “I believe John Terry wants to win when he plays football and he is strong enough to make the difference between what is happening on the pitch and sometimes for people to play football can be a diversion from what’s happening off the field,” he said.
“I’ve had some players who when they have had problems they wanted to be on the pitch because it was the place they can get out of it.”
At Stamford Bridge at least, Terry’s rehabilitation appears to have begun.
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