Ancelotti keeps his mind on the games that count
Chelsea boss to answer Kop chants by closing in on a historic Double
The talk at Chelsea's training ground yesterday lunchtime was of the managers of the moment. Carlo Ancelotti found himself trumpeting Jose Mourinho's tactical triumph at the Nou Camp, hailing the latest chapter of Roy Hodgson's fairytale at Fulham, lauding Alex Ferguson's powers of endurance, even endorsing the qualities of the besieged Rafael Benitez.
It was only towards the end of a typically laid-back press conference, high on bonhomie, low on explosive quotes, that someone put it to Ancelotti that he might yet eclipse Hodgson as the manager of the year. Win the next three games with Chelsea, starting against Liverpool at Anfield tomorrow, and he will have led them to the Double in his first season in English football. And not even Mourinho, the self-styled Special One, managed that.
Ancelotti laughed at the notion, saying that Hodgson would get his nomination and that he was far more interested in winning the Premier League. It was a throwaway remark but, in the week when Mourinho strode across the pitch at the Nou Camp in one of the most self-indulgent celebrations seen from a coach, it was a reminder -- yet another reminder -- of the huge difference between the intense, image-obsessed Portuguese and the folksy, jowly Italian who is never knowingly flustered.
In some ways Ancelotti remains an enigma to the English football public -- even to some of his players -- but the search for hidden depths might prove to be a vain one. Chelsea's players have, over the course of the season, concluded that what you see is what you get -- a manager who is a warrior to Mourinho's diplomat and who, while not quite so painstaking in the business of preparing them, knows how to organise a team and has a fair old instinct for football and footballers after 34 years in the game as player and manager.
If it were Mourinho, Benítez or even the urbane Arsene Wenger in this position, slugging it out with Ferguson and Manchester United for the Premier League title, the barbs would be flying back and forth. Mind games, we call them.
Ancelotti would probably call them nonsense. He has no interest in them. He likes to get along with people, even Mourinho, whose loathing of him during their time at rival Milan clubs last season was not reciprocated, to judge from Ancelotti's revelation yesterday that he sent the Special One a congratulatory text message after Inter Milan's 3-1 victory over Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final, first leg (though apparently not the second leg).
Ancelotti was asked why he never gets involved in the mind games, the moaning about injuries, the wacky conspiracies about referees. "To do mind games is not my job," he said. "I'm not able to do this. I prefer to stay focused with my players. I have a lot of things to think about: we have to prepare the game tactically, physically. I don't spend time on other things."
For a time halfway through this season, it was tempting to wonder how Ancelotti and his players were spending their time at the training ground. Results dipped dramatically, just as they had during Luiz Felipe Scolari's ill-fated tenure last season, and the defence, always such a Chelsea strength under Mourinho and, indeed, Avram Grant, began to leak, particularly from set-pieces. Mourinho would regard such goals as a sin. Ancelotti viewed them as a slight irritation, much as he did the series of scurrilous headlines involving the private life of Terry, his captain.
Earlier in the season Ancelotti talked of the requirement -- spelt out to him by Roman Abramovich, the club's owner -- to stamp his own identity on Chelsea. With the Premier League title within touching distance and with a remarkable total of 93 goals scored in 36 matches, he feels he -- or rather his team -- are close to doing that.
"I tried to change something in the season, to put a new play on the pitch," Ancelotti said. "I think that we have now a good identity. If you look at the way Chelsea play, you can recognise our kind of play."
And what is that style? "We like to play football," he said. "We are training to do this every day, to play from the back and to use the quality of our players, to use this kind of play to show the quality of our players. You must play good football if you have this quality of players. Sometimes we did it very well. For some games I was very happy to watch my team play, like on Sunday against Stoke (a 7-0 win). I was very, very happy that day."
Ancelotti will be happier still if Chelsea emerge triumphant at Anfield tomorrow against Liverpool, the club who famously overturned a 3-0 half-time deficit to his Milan team in the 2005 Champions League final. That experience is enough to tell Ancelotti of a fighting spirit within Liverpool's DNA -- even if it has rarely been in evidence this season and even if, with Benítez and his players demoralised as well as weary after their unsuccessful Europa League exertions on Thursday, it is not easy to see the Merseyside club producing the result that could effectively hand the title to United.
There is a well-worn Liverpudlian chant that ridicules Chelsea as having "no history" and it was on this theme, finally, that Ancelotti uttered something that his players might regard as inspirational. "The past is the past," he said. "Everyone respects the history of Liverpool. And everyone has to have respect for our history. Maybe it's a different history, but everyone has to have respect for the history of this club."
It was not said as Mourinho would say it, but perhaps, finally, even after falling to his Inter team in the Champions League barely six weeks ago, Chelsea have moved on from that. Time will tell. Over the next fortnight Ancelotti could banish Mourinho's ghost once and for all, or he could end up looking like a bum. And whichever it is, it will not make the slightest difference to his behaviour. It's not about him, you see. It's about his players. And tomorrow he expects them to deliver.
© The Times, London