Ballack confident of success for Chelsea
As Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich watched his side stutter through December in less than convincing fashion, an alarming sense of déjà vu must have descended upon him.
With a Carling Cup exit at Blackburn followed by a defeat at Manchester City and draws against APEOL Nicosia, Everton, West Ham and Birmingham, the dominant aura Chelsea built up in the first four months of the season was rattled to the point where the club's demanding billionaire chief could have been forgiven for fearing the worst.
The fact that the Blues retained their position atop the Premier League standings despite their unexpected mid-season dip in form must have helped Abramovich's mood, yet he could not help but feel as if he has lived through this kind of deflating experience once before after last year's false dawn.
It's easy to forget that the first half of last season was a story of promise and optimism for Chelsea fans who waxed lyrical about the open and expansive style manager Luiz Felipe Scolari had brought to the club, while the bookmakers were quick to attach that tag of title favourites to the Blues, just as they have done once again this time.
However, the first week of January in 2009 threw up a chilling reality for Abramovich and Chelsea's army of less wealthy followers as they began to realise their Brazilian saviour was, in fact, out of his depth in his first major job in European club football.
A home draw with little Southend in the FA Cup was quickly followed by a thumping 3-0 defeat at Manchester United and less than a month later, Scolari was consigned to the ranks of former Premier League managers, with a massive cash pay-off compensating the public humbling he was forced to endure.
One year on and Chelsea are entering a month that will answer plenty of questions about their incumbent coach and a team that were being hailed as "champions elect" in some quarters after they thrashed Arsenal 3-0 at Emirates Stadium in their last game of November.
That was before the month that exposed a few forgotten blemishes in their make-up, with keeper Petr Cech among those who came under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
When you throw in the departures of Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel and Salomon Kalou for the African Nations Cup, the pack chasing Chelsea had every right to feel a tingle of excitement as the New Year dawned.
However, the vibes emanating from the Chelsea camp this year differ greatly to the hollow backing Scolari received a year ago. Not one Chelsea player, either publicly or via that "inside source" route, has voiced a note of concern about manager Carlo Ancelotti in the media and in the opinion of Blues midfielder Michael Ballack, the internal coup that sparked a change in coach last season will not be repeated this time.
"I'm part of a team that is ready to start winning the big prizes again and it feels like we now have a manager who will bring stability to the club," begins the Germany captain.
"We have had too many coaches during my time at Chelsea and that is not a good idea if you want success. Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari all came and went before Guus Hiddink had some time with us last season, but it feels like Carlo Ancelotti is here to stay and that has to be good news for Chelsea.
"This team has connected with Ancelotti and all the players believe he is a man who can work for us, which is a tribute to him because he has come into a dressing room full of highly experienced players who all have their own opinions and beliefs.
"Maybe that was a problem for other coaches because this is a team where players are not afraid to stand up to each other. We saw that when we lost at Aston Villa earlier in the season and had a very open discussion in the dressing room.
"It's not a bad thing when a group can be self-critical as it shows the commitment is there and none of us believe this is the perfect team. We have lost games this season and have some problems to solve, but this is part of the challenge."
Big name players like Ballack have been around the game for long enough to pass balanced judgements on a coach and with so many dominant personalities littering the Chelsea dressing room, Ancelotti appears to have won respect from a group that quickly came to the conclusion that Scolari was not up to scratch.
The need to navigate this tricky spell without Drogba and company is clearly vital to Chelsea's hopes, but Ballack insists the so-called "crisis" at Stamford Bridge needs to be given a touch of perspective.
"We lost a game at Manchester City that could easily have gone in our favour and then everyone says there are problems at Chelsea, but I think our issues are only small," he adds. "City are a strong side and we missed big chances that helped them to win, but we need to work on areas of our team and set-plays are something we have to give a lot of attention to.
"Defending free kicks and corners is a team effort and not just down to the defenders and Petr Cech and attacking at the other end is not just down to Drogba or Nicolas Anelka. The best teams win as a group and that is the idea Ancelotti promotes in this team.
"The fact that we are top of the Premier League and still talking about areas to improve means we are a team with amazing potential and this is why I'm convinced we can look forward to the second half of the season.
"Sure we will miss the African players when they are away because they bring so much to our team, but Chelsea has never been about one player and that's why I'm certain we can be strong again when it matters this season."
Ballack is currently negotiating an extension to his lucrative Chelsea contract and at the age of 33, his pressing need to add some gold to his vast personal fortune should give him all the motivation he needs to get the Blues back onto the top podium in 2010.
A couple of Premier League runners-up finishes, a losing Champions League Final medal and a brief substitute appearance in last season's FA Cup Final is the sum total of Ballack's three-and-a-half-year story of near misses at Chelsea, so he will be hoping their December blip does not become something more terminal before the end of season gongs are handed out this time.
Oh, and just in case Ancelotti had any doubts that he is expected to deliver in the next few weeks, the sudden availability of a certain Guus Hiddink should focus his mind.