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Aug 7, 2009

Age concern for Chelsea

When Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson suggested Chelsea's experienced squad was too old to contend for major titles at the start of last season, he received plenty of scorn in return from his west London rivals.

Only a misguided referee in the Champions League semi-final tie against Barcelona denied Chelsea's ageing stars the chance to prove Ferguson wrong in the grand manner, yet the United chief could claim to have been proved right in the end as the Blues finished the campaign with merely FA Cup winners medals.

Daniel Sturridge's arrival from Manchester City during this summer was an attempt to bring a youthful presence to the squad, yet the reality is Chelsea are heading towards the new campaign with a group of veterans who are threatening to give the club an unwanted reputation.

After striker Didier Drogba was handed a new three-year contract earlier this week and with little sign of fresh talent being injected into the playing pool, Chelsea are rapidly becoming known as the outpost for former greats edging towards their final curtain calls.

Frank Lampard, Ricardo Carvalho, Paulo Ferreira, Nicolas Anelka, Michael Ballack and the returning Andrey Shevchenko find themselves in the '30-something' club at Stamford Bridge, with skipper John Terry and Ashley Cole soon to join them. Even transfer target Andrea Pirlo at AC Milan is the holder of a few 30th birthday cards.

It leaves departed boss Guus Hiddink to suggest the chief priority for the club should be dragging down the average age of a squad which is losing its marketable value at a rapid rate.

"A club needs young players with their heart in the project to have a spirit," suggests Hiddink. "This has obviously been a problem for Chelsea because they have a lot of players in the 30-plus category and not so many in the young and promising age range.

"I have mentioned to the people at Chelsea that they need to address the issue as youth development is vital to any club. You don't want to be viewed as a team that merely buys ready made players, but this is the perception some have of Chelsea just now.

"They are a club at the very top of the game, but when you consider the very biggest names in the world, Chelsea are not there yet. In my view, they can reach this level in the not too distant future, but the only way to get there is with some time and stability at the top.

"The location of the club and the ambition of the owner has already helped Chelsea to come from the middle of the table to be one of the most dominant sides in England, so the next step has to be Europe. They have been so close in the Champions League over recent years and then they missed out in a penalty shoot-out in the 2008 Final.

"I know they want to sign the top players in the game and have tried to do so. Their ambition cannot be doubted, but it can be hard when they compete with the established clubs to get the big talents."

This was not what Roman Abramovich has in mind when he threw his considerable financial muscle behind Chelsea in the summer of 2003. Back then, the billionaire Russian owner had visions of building a team of Galacticos in west London and he couldn't imagine a scenario where he could fail.

The vast wage packets on offer from this Russian revolutionary and his determination to make Chelsea the new dominant force European football should have sparked the arrival of the world's best players at Stamford Bridge.

Thierry Henry, Ronaldinho and Kaka were among the first names he tried and failed to lure to Chelsea, leaving Abramovich fishing for second string players like Juan Sebastian Veron, Adrian Mutu and Scott Parker, all of whom flopped after big money moves.

Even after the trophies began to flow once Jose Mourinho arrived as manager, you suspected Abramovich was looking on enviously as clubs like Manchester United and Real Madrid proved time and again that their pulling power was built on history rather than finance.

It falls to newly appointed boss Carlo Ancelotti to piece together a winning formula from tried and tested performers whose only flaw is getting older, yet the cynics have claimed the main reason Chelsea appointed him as manager back in May was for his reputation as chairman in chief of football's old boys clubs.

Ancelotti proved successful in getting the best out of veteran performers during his time at AC Milan so it comes as no surprise that the new man at the helm prefers to promote the virtues of experience when this thorny issue is raised.

"People seem focused on the fact that we had a lot of experienced players at Milan and saw it as a negative, but I look at this in another way," says Ancelotti, whose creaking Milan side beat Liverpool in the 2007 Champions League final.

"When you have Paulo Maldini at the age of 39 and he is playing with such composure and professionalism, it's an example to everyone else of what is possible. Just because a player reaches 30, it is not all over and we proved this at Milan.

"Everyone dismissed the Milan team in 2007 and we finished with the Champions League, so this shows what experience can bring. Chelsea have some older players, but they are younger than those I worked with at Milan, so let's see what we can do."

Powerful men like Abramovich are used to getting things their own way by, so the notion that the football club he has tossed hundreds of millions of pounds at is still not considered an attractive option for the major performers in the world game must be a point of huge frustration.

With little sign of the Chelsea's youth policy reaping imminent rewards and the reality that older players tend to pick up injuries more frequently than their younger counterparts, this was the summer when Abramovich should have been flexing his financial muscle all over again.

Instead, Chelsea failed with another massive bid for Kaka and then witnessed Manchester City and Real Madrid landing the game's top talent with a little too much ease.

Abramovich could be forgiven for wondering where his fantasy of a west London super-club went wrong.

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