All quiet on the west London front

IT used to be that you could always rely on Chelsea to spice up those vacant weeks when the international programme lays a dead and frosty hand across football.

A 900-word column to fill? Simple. Get Peter Kenyon, and José to tap up Arsenal and England’s full back in the most public way possible in a busy hotel at Lancaster Gate.

Another quiet Wednesday? Let’s check up whose youth system Chelsea are pillaging this week. That can be relied upon to create howls of outrage, with a delicious side-helping of a potential transfer ban.

Harassment of referees? We were good for that too, particularly if they were a) Scandinavian b) useless and c) poseurs. Do you remember when Chelsea were the enemies of football? Mourinho hiding in laundry baskets? Terrygate, the handshake that wasn’t, insults about the Royal Berkshire ambulance service, the systematic winding-up of specific opposition managers such as Wenger and Benitez?

Time was when it was all grist to our mill.

Now under the benevolent and calm guidance of Carlo Ancelotti that rich vein of controversy seems to have been fully mined. The pyrotechnics behind the scenes have been exchanged for an attractive and flowing presence on the pitch and the most controversial question you can raise since the defeat of Arsenal 10 days ago is whether John Terry’s sudden withdrawal from the England squad over a “back spasm” presages something more significant in terms of his future involvement with the national side.

Terry has been in outstanding form this season and it will be a blow if he is not available for this weekend’s fixture at Villa Park, a ground where we have underperformed more often than not in the past decade. With Alex injured after his thunderbolt intervention settled proceedings against the Gunners this would leave Chelsea with just two fit centre-halves – young Jeffrey Bruma, a Dutch international but only recently returned from his own injury and callow at Premier League level, and the highly popular Branislav Ivanovic.

It’s a conundrum for Carlo, but one that he needs to become used to if his relatively thin squad is to compete for the full range of honours in the second half of the season.

The visit of Russia, and Roman Abramovich, to the Aviva Stadium on Friday night gave me the chance to study in some more depth the form of one of Chelsea’s most enigmatic squad members, Yuri Zhirkov.

Zhirkov is a highly-talented left-sided player but in a straight match with Ashley Cole it’s no contest, and in his more promising, pushed-on, role he’s not likely to displace Florent Malouda.

Watching Robbie Keane go down like a sack of potatoes from his slightest of touches in the penalty area in the second-half I began to wonder whether Zhirkov was going to be another of those players who drift across the Chelsea landscape almost without trace, like Scott Parker, Alexei Smertin, and Andriy Shevchenko.

If there’s one area that Chelsea are strong, it’s in the number of lefties in the club ranks. Apart from the first team choices the England U21 left back, Ryan Bertrand, currently on loan at Nottingham Forest, is a Blue. The England U19 left back Aziz Deen-Conteh is a Youth Cup winner from last season, 17-year-old Josh McEachran, also an U19 international, and Gael Kakuta are both naturally left-footed. That’s an awful lot of competition coming up fast for the man we signed from CSKA Moscow.

Which brings me back to Ashley Cole who last night was scheduled to equal Kenny Sansom’s record of the number of caps for a full-back – 86. Mourinho described him as “a great player, but a better man.” It’s not often you will hear that around English grounds, or in the X-factor studio.

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