Usually when a team has top spot in the Champions League group stage locked up going into the final matchday, there is little emphasis put on the result of that team in that final group fixture. Not so when you are Chelsea and are currently mired in a run of form that better suits the Ken Bates era than the reign of the Roman Abramovich. The 1-0 loss to Marseille has heaped more pressure on Italian boss Carlo Ancelotti as his seat grows warmer with every draw and loss. Whether it is right or wrong to speculate about Ancelotti’s future is secondary because this is Chelsea and recent history suggests he better right this ship quickly or he faces the chop from the Russian billionaire.
Chelsea entered the month of November on top of the Premier League heading into a clash at Anfield with a Liverpool side in desperate need of a season changing win. Behind raucous home support the Reds dealt Chelsea a 2-0 defeat which on its own said more about Liverpool’s need than Chelsea’s. That loss however sparked one of Chelsea’s worst runs of form in the league since Abramovich took over at Stamford Bridge. The Blues have taken just 5 points out of the 18 on offer since the beginning of November. This rather poor period for Chelsea has seen them lose consecutive matches to Sunderland and Birmingham in the league, defeat the über-minnows of MSK Zilina in unimpressive comeback fashion in front of the home supporters on a European night, draw a pair of 1-1 matches back in the league with Newcastle and Everton and rounding out this forgettable run was an away defeat to Marseille 1-0.
While the away loss on Merseyside can be forgiven, it was the manner in which Chelsea was thoroughly defeated at Stamford Bridge by Sunderland that started the alarm bells to ring. The 3-0 defeat was a bit flattering to Chelsea in truth with Sunderland failing to capitalize on many a decent chance on goal. That combined with the away loss to Birmingham allowed the murmurs about Ancelotti’s job security to quietly grow. Those whispers became full on questions when his side failed to collect more than two points from Newcastle and Everton. Those results saw them leap-frogged at the top of the table first by Manchester United and then Arsenal. A once seemingly secure lead has now been surrendered in a month without having to face a squad in the top six of the Premier League.
In fairness to Ancelotti he has been without his first choice pair in central defense on a regular basis, the formidable duo of club captain John Terry and Alex. Terry is truly the general on this team and his loss is glaring at times even though in the past year or so he has had his own share of less than average outings by his high standards. Alex’s inconsistent selection comes at a time when it seems the Brasilian is finally emerging as a top defender. He has taken the opportunity offered him by the departure of Ricardo Carvalho to Real Madrid to solidify his place alongside Terry as Ancelotti’s first-choice pairing. Another loss has been Frank Lampard. The midfielder’s absence seems to be missed more and more since his comrades and cover have missed matches due to cards (Michael Essien v. Fulham) or are just not good enough as in the case of Jon Obi Mikel and Yuri Zhirkov.
The lack of quality on the field has been matched by a strange off-field incident involving an assistant. The day after Chelsea’s last league triumph, the club severed ties with assistant Ray Wilkins on November 11th. Wilkins came on board for his second stint as the No. 2 in September 2008 and has backed up three managers in that span. He was the caretaker boss when the club sacked Luiz Felipe Scolari in a surprise midseason move in December 2008. He returned to his assistant role when Guus Hiddink was personally tapped by Abramovich to see out the ’08-’09 campaign for the Blues. Recently he was the assistant for current boss Carlo Ancelotti. His departure has remained a sore spot for some at the club because of the timing and how it was handled. Ancelotti himself has stated that he did not want Wilkins to leave and that the decision seemed to come from above. Many have pointed the finger at the Director of Football Frank Arnesen but he has in turn resigned. Only at Chelsea it seems can the dismissal of an assistant garner such attention and can also be handled so poorly, but then again the spotlight a string of defeats attracts tends to shine at all possible causes.
The injuries and the Wilkins’ situation aside, Chelsea and Carlo Ancelotti are about to go from the November wilderness and into the December gauntlet. They did successfully top their Champions League group in spite of their last two performances in the competition and will likely face a weaker opponent in the round of 16 not to mention having the 2nd leg of the tie at Stamford Bridge. They find out the opponent Friday and then set the Champions League aside until late February. In the meantime it is a fair question as to whether Ancelotti survives December and makes it to the round of 16 as Chelsea boss. Chelsea’s next four Premier League games may not decide the title but they may eliminate the Blues from the title race should they perform like they did the month prior. Chelsea travels to White Hart Lane Sunday to take on a Spurs side that has proven to be a difficult proposition at home. They return to the Bridge to take on Manchester United a week later which is always an explosive affair. Chelsea then begins the always tough Holiday program of matches with Arsenal at the Emirates December 27th before hosting the Premier League’s surprise package of the season Bolton on the 29th to round out the month.
The unstated but yet clear goal of this club under Roman Abramovich has been to lift the European Cup. Chelsea has come up short on many strong campaigns in that competition which led to the hiring of Carlo Ancelotti who led AC Milan in 2003 and 2007 to Champions League glory. He was the man with the experience deemed necessary to lead Chelsea to this aim. Although he fell well short of the target in 2010 and was bounced out by former Chelsea hero Jose Mourinho and his Inter Milan side, Ancelotti helped to stabilize the club and help guide it to its third Premier League title in less than six seasons.
Ironically that trophy and the competition it belongs to may be Ancelotti’s undoing at Chelsea. If he does not come out of the next four fixtures within six points of the leaders for example he may lose the dressing room and eventually Roman Abramovich. There is precedent when it comes to Chelsea (see Mourinho and Scolari) and these players. John Terry has proven he is not afraid to stand up to the boss when he feels the ship is sinking, he has done so against Mourinho even against Fabio Capello at last summer’s World Cup for England. Chelsea may not be at full blown crisis level yet, but a loss Sunday at Spurs combined with a clear winner in the Man United/Arsenal fixture may spell the end for Ancelotti. He needs a win Sunday combined with a complete turn around of form in the next 30 days to survive and have a chance at winning “The Pride of London’s” first European Cup come next May at Wembley and end Chelsea’s hurt in the Champions League. That may seem like a drastic forecast but such is the current climate of expectations at Chelsea year in and year out that it is the task Carlo Ancelotti now faces.