Carlo Ancelotti urges Chelsea to win ugly if it helps European push
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has spent £750m of his own cash building a team capable of winning the Double. It took him seven years to fully transform Chelsea, and only seven months for that same team to implode.
The decline has been swift and unexpected, and it remains to be seen if manager Carlo Ancelotti has the wherewithal to prevent the club's worst run for more than a decade becoming terminal, both for him as manager and for his team.
The imminent arrival of defender David Luiz from Benfica for a fee in excess of £20m demonstrates that Abramovich is still willing to fund major purchases by the club, which he can do only until Uefa's Financial Fair Play rules begin in 2013.
Abramovich's desire to spend so much money on Luiz, the biggest fee Chelsea have spent on a player since the ill-fated decision to recruit Andrei Shevchenko from Milan for £30.8m in the summer of 2006, shows the strength of his desire to ensure his club do not finish outside the top four and thereby fail to qualify for next season's Champions League.
Ancelotti described that scenario as "unthinkable" when he met the press last week, as the lost income from the Champions League would be expensive and the damage to the club's reputation extensive.
However finishing fifth in the Premier League is a real, if unpalatable, possibility. During the same press conference Ancelotti also delivered the damning verdict that he has not been satisfied with both the results and performances of his team since their 2-0 victory over Arsenal on 3 October, three and a half long months ago.
The club's worst run of form for more than a decade was brought to an end with a 7-0 victory over Ipswich Town in the FA Cup, and a 2-0 win over Blackburn Rovers in the league. The champions now embark on a run of three away games – at Bolton Wanderers for a league game tonight, followed by Everton in the FA Cup fourth round and then Sunderland in the league – that will go a long way to deciding the fate of their season. Win them, and their confidence will surely return. However anything less and they are in danger of slipping even further behind leaders Manchester United and the chasing pack.
The startling decline of defending champions Chelsea has yet to be fully explained. Last year's Double winners looked to be running away with it in the autumn, but winter has seen them go into hibernation, and they currently lag 10 points behind Sir Alex Ferguson's side.
Ancelotti offered some kind of analysis for the loss of both form and points. He explained that Chelsea are "vulnerable" if they don't perform at their very best, that they do not possess that capacity to win games when they play poorly. So when they lost form in October, when John Terry and Frank Lampard were injured and Didier Drogba was suffering from malaria, they proved to be surprisingly beatable, and opponents took full advantage.
Ancelotti said: "This is the reason. For Chelsea to win the game, we have to play well, play good football. We are not able to win the game if we are not able to play well. It could be a good motivation to improve our football and improve our play."
Ancelotti said the same was true last season – when they played poorly, they lost – the only difference being they didn't play poorly very often.
"We played very well last season and when we didn't play well, we lost the game the same way we have lost them this season," he said. "Our aim is to improve our football. This is the way to win the game. It is our philosophy. We don't want to stay back and maybe use the long ball or use the counter-attack. We want to play different football so maybe this is also the reason that if we don't play well we are vulnerable."
Ancelotti admitted he has considered changing formation and personnel during Chelsea's dismal run, but after consulting the players he decided to stick with the team and tactics that served them so well last season.
"I thought a lot of times that it would be good to change something in the squad, in the shape, but we are working with this shape for a year and a half," he said. "It's good to change if there is a reason to change. If the players are not comfortable playing this kind of football, then we could change but after asking the players if the style was good, I decided not to change."
The goal now is to string together a run of victories and close the gap on United, who Chelsea must play home and away. Ancelotti has targeted those games as ones the champions simply must win, along with home games again Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool.
The title however is surely beyond them. After all that has happened in the past three months, they would probably settle for fourth place right now.