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Aug 5, 2009

Signing Pirlo may not aid Chelsea's gameplan

Think back to the last World Cup final and one image springs immediately to mind, that of Zinedine Zidane thrusting his head towards Marco Materazzi's chest to bring a dramatic and undignified end to his career. In Italy, memories may be almost as vivid of Fabio Grosso's conclusive penalty in the shootout. Yet reflect upon the match as a whole and one player stood out: Andrea Pirlo, the man of the match in the biggest game of his life. If proof were ever required of Pirlo's class, it was provided that July Sunday in Berlin. In eight years together at AC Milan, Carlo Ancelotti has had ample opportunity to observe Pirlo's talents. Indeed, it is partly because of Ancelotti, who converted him from a typical Italian No. 10 to a holding midfielder, that Pirlo has enjoyed such success.

The Chelsea manager's wish to be reunited with one of the architects of Milan's last two Champions League triumphs is entirely understandable. His Italian club may have twice voiced their reluctance to sell the player but the eventual sales of Cristiano Ronaldo and Xabi Alonso have proved that no rarely means no in football transfers. But all that does not make Pirlo a player Chelsea need.

He is a wonderful player; that is not the issue. He passes the ball with nonchalant ease, and if the nickname 'the metronome' indicates the accuracy, it ignores the essential elegance of his game. He can strike a set-piece as sweetly as any player in the Premier League. Yet none of that means he should swap the San Siro for Stamford Bridge.

Ancelotti, who has offered his former club Claudio Pizarro in part-exchange, hopes he will. Yet the composition of Chelsea's squad and the club's recent history indicates he shouldn't. For several seasons, the central midfield positions have been the most fiercely contested at the club.

Additions occur almost annually - Michael Essien in 2005, Michael Ballack and John Obi Mikel the following year and Deco 12 months ago – and only Essien has displayed the versatility to flourish elsewhere on the pitch. Then, of course, there is Frank Lampard, whose consistency and potency in front of goal demands his selection. Cramming all the existing midfielders into the same side has posed problems for each of Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Guus Hiddink.

Ancelotti, it seems, is eager to render his decision-making more difficult. If he arrives, Pirlo will play. If Chelsea persist with a diamond, it suggests Pirlo will operate at the base with Lampard at the tip, Essien on the right and either Florent Malouda or Yuri Zhirkov on the left. That would leave Mikel, the natural anchor man in the current squad, and Ballack, who can also adopt that role, joining Deco and Joe Cole, when the latter returns to fitness, on the bench.

It amounts to an excess of options, particularly when there appears to be a greater need for another striker, to provide an alternative to Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, or a creative player who would operate in the final third of the pitch.

In any case, while the current formation calls for four midfielders and no wingers, a lesson of Chelsea's recent past is that diamonds aren't forever. Another is that the club possess too many players whose 30th birthday is in the past; Pirlo would join that club.

There are parallels with the most recent addition. Deco was Scolari's flagship signing, a man whose distribution was supposed to indicate a shift in the style of play. The pace of the Premier League proved too great and a first season in England ended in failure. Intriguingly, the Portugal international operated as the deep-lying playmaker at one point in pre-season, perhaps providing a prototype for Pirlo in the new system.

Chelsea should hope the similarities end there as Deco came to symbolise Scolari's unsuitability for the Premier League. For Pirlo, too, it could provide a culture shock. Milan set their own tempo and while an emphasis on retaining possession would be admirable, Scolari's side found themselves struggling against fitter, faster sides when they did not have the ball. It is an area where, once again, Ancelotti must show he is not overseeing an unfortunate action replay. The younger, more physical Mikel represents Pirlo's antithesis: unlike to pierce an opposing defence with one pass, but capable of providing his back four with muscular protection.

Without playing more than a handful of Champions League games in England, Pirlo has already exerted an influence. Indeed, it is not overstating the case to say he is something of a quiet revolutionary: without his example, would Sir Alex Ferguson have wanted a similarly classy passer, Michael Carrick, to play such a pivotal role in his own side? It is pertinent, too, that another kindred spirit, Xabi Alonso, was perhaps the outstanding central midfielder in the Premier League last season.

But both were accustomed to the pace of the Premier League and both operated in more balanced teams than Chelsea's threatens to be. In Italy, Andrea Pirlo ranks among the outstanding players of his generation. In England, the danger is that he could prove the second Deco.

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