Chelsea’s Corner: At Unfamiliar Crossroads

Flashback 1: In the 2003-04 season, AC Milan won the Scudetto after a five-year long wait. In the Serie A, it was a remarkable season for the Rossoneri; a 11-point lead over their nearest rivals Roma summed up their title triumph. Andriy Shevchenko was crowned the European footballer of the Year and Kaka showed glimpses of what was to come. However, Milan was knocked out of the Champions League at the Quarter Final stage, after a 4-0 loss at the hand of Deportivo La Coruña.

Flashback 2: Milan began the 2002-03 league campaign in a spectacular fashion, winning three out of their first four games 3-0, 3-0 and 6-0, but eventually both Juventus and Inter finished ahead of them in the league, with Juve claiming the title. However, il Diavolo had the last laugh when they defeated Juventus to claim their first Champions League after 1994. After a stalemate at Old Trafford, Milan got the better of their rivals in a penalty shootout, thereby inflicting pain on The Old Lady at the biggest stage in club football.

Flashback 3: In the aftermath of Calciopoli, Milan began the 2006-07 season with an 8-point penalty, and could never fully overcome the head start that their rivals enjoyed. They huffed and puffed to a fourth place finish, thereby achieving their aim of qualifying for the next edition of Champions League. That year in Europe, AC Milan were a different beast altogether. Not only did they crush Man United at San Siro in the semi-final, but also exacted revenge for Istanbul by defeating Liverpool in the finals.

King Carlo, celebrating with a familiar trophy.

If you were concerned about the title and the content being worlds apart, I guess it would be time to bring Chelsea into the picture.

After a disastrous end to the year 2010, which would still be fondly remembered by the Chelsea fans for their club’s first-ever Double, the reigning Premiership champions have slowly found their feet again. In the last three matches, the West London club has scored 13 goals without conceding; if the players continue to improve as they have thus far, fans can hope for a strong finish in the league – a finish strong enough for a top-four berth, to say the least.

Although Chelsea did play in the Champions League in the 1999-2000 season, the club was far from being considered as the contender for the Big EarsIt was only after a certain Russian took over the club that people began to sit up and take notice. Thereafter, year after year, CFC has entered the competition full of hope and a desire to win the elusive trophy, only to be denied or to fail at the last hurdle. In all but one campaign, the club was involved in a head-on battle with Manchester United in the league till the very end.  This season, the scenario is different; Chelsea would have to defeat the Old Trafford club,both home and away, and also get results against Liverpool, City and Tottenham at home, before the Red Devils start looking fearfully over their shoulders for a certain Blue charge towards the title. As it stands, this is the first instance when Chelsea will enter the knockout stage of the Champions League without being earmarked as the favourite or one of the two favourites for the league title. This newly found status as a “non-favourite” has the potential to play into the hands of the Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti.

Can Ancelotti accomplish the mission he was hired for?

For me the Champions League is a beautiful sensation because, when I played, I won it twice – in 1989 and 1990 – and those were fantastic moments. It was the same when I was a coach at Milan, when we won it in 2003 and 2007. The Champions League, for me, is the best competition in the world and we all want to win it. Chelsea has a great record, with five semi-finals in six years, and that is a beautiful record. But now we have to win. I hope this will happen.” – Ancelotti, after being appointed the new Chelsea manager in  2009.

It’s no secret that the Italian was pursued for an year, and then signed by Roman Abramovich with just a solitary goal in mind – to bring the elusive European trophy home.  To underscore the importance of Champions League in West London, Carlo would earn a £1m bonus when Chelsea FC is crowned the king of Europe. Domestically in Italy, Ancelotti’s résumé was anything but spectacular. He had just one Scudetto triumph to show for his eight year tenure at the San Siro;  clearly, this appointment at Stamford Bridge had Europe written all over it.

There are striking similarities between Carlo Ancelott’s past and present job appointments, at Milan and Chelsea respectively :-

  • Both clubs were knocked out early from Champions League, in the only league-winning campaign. Milan won the Serie A title, after tasting defeat at the hands of Deportivo, while, Chelsea finished the Premier League season on top, after Jose Mourinho had relieved his former club from European duty.
  • The single most clichéd criticism of the squad of both the teams was/has been that the players were either old or way past their prime.
  • Carlo had to deal with owners who were far more interested in team affairs than the Italian would have hoped for.
  • Milan won the Champions league twice, and reached the final once, when there was no pressure to fight for the league title. In the ongoing 2010-11 season, Chelsea are 10 points adrift of Man United in the league, and will start the knock-out stage of UCL against FC Copenhagen in February.

Many reasons are attributed to Ancelotti’s ability, or rather inability, to achieve parallel success in Europe and in the league. Some believe that he can’t keep his squad motivated for prolonged periods, and hence the less than admirable league record, while others believe that he can only focus on one competition at a time, and that he lacks the killer instinct or ruthlessness needed to sustain a treble-winning season. Whatever be the case, every manager has his weaknesses, and Carlo is no different. The fact is, Chelsea’s current position, howsoever unfamiliar it may be for the club, will give the manager an opportunity to play to his strengths, and work towards realising the most reoccurring Blue dream. Also, the club is still in the hunt to become only the second club in the history of English Football, after Blackburn Rovers, to win three FA Cups in a row, if the West Londoners manage to defend their crown this year.

Chelsea, after witnessing a devastating injury crisis between October and December, will soon have all the players except Benayoun at their disposal come February end, with the Israeli only expected to return in April. The club, if reports are to be believed, is close to bringing in reinforcement(s) to boost the squad. The team is on the verge of regaining its lost confidence back, and if there’s anything to go by the celebrations that followed Ramires first goal for the club, it is safe to say that the Chelsea players are an united bunch  and the team spirit is still intact. It will also suit Chelsea’s old war horses, such as Lampard, Terry, and Drogba, who have been debilitated by recurring injuries, if Ancelotti realigns his primary focus to Europe.

In football, as in life, there comes a time when certain tough decisions have to be made. Very soon, Chelsea Football Cub, Carlo Ancelotti, and also the fans will find themselves standing at the crossroads – one path may lead them to their fifth English top division title, and the other path may lead them to their first European triumph. If you were told that a choice would have to be made, which one would you choose? The familiar route or the one less traveled?

In the grand scheme of things, not winning the league this season will never be considered a disaster; however, if Carlito can pull off a Milan in London with the present set of players, it would be something to cherish forever for Chelsea fans.