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May 12, 2011

Ancelotti best out of charmless Chelsea

Proud Man Walking is the tale of a popular Italian coach's exit from Chelsea Football Club. A man applauded at Old Trafford, despite his team's close rivalry with Manchester United, a coach whose charms have won him many a friend in the English footballing public, and a manager due to wind up managing AS Roma, with whom he had shared a close affinity.

Carlo Ancelotti may well be using Claudio Ranieri's 2004 autobiographical story of a season at Stamford Bridge as a reference text. The first victim of the Roman Abramovich approach to Chelsea managers bears closest comparison to Ancelotti, with the notable difference of silverware being in the latterday boss' favour. A year on from winning the English Double with a flourish, few expect to see Carlo's flasher's mac prowling the Stamford Bridge touchline beyond this weekend's match with Newcastle.

'Dead man walking' is the epithet now attached to Ancelotti, though sympathy is rife. A coach who can last eight years amid the machinations of Silvio Berlusconi and Adriano Galliani at AC Milan had looked the best person to survive the cabal that dances to the Abramovich tune. Yet he will have lasted under two years, as the shadowy Chelsea hierachy look for another short-term fix for their long-term targets.

And it is not as if Ancelotti did not deliver with alacrity: a team dismissed as lacking in youthful exuberance ended Manchester United's three-year dominance of the Premier League before achieving something Jose Mourinho could not do in lifting the FA Cup in the same season. At most other clubs, such a year of success would buy time - but not at Chelsea. Though it comes from a different era, the example most used in arguing that patience can be a footballing virtue is Alex Ferguson's four-season wait for a trophy. Under Abramovich, it seems impossible to think Ferguson could have survived long enough to even have a "three years of excuses" banner aimed at him. Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger's delivery of a double Double and an unbeaten season would never have been enough to escape the axe in the light of a six-year trophy drought.

Neither Ferguson nor Wenger could ever survive Roman's unquenchable desire for European conquest, and even Mourinho's special qualities could not extend a relationship beyond just past three seasons.

Charm and public appeal are in relatively short supply in consideration of the Abramovich years. One of his club's lesser achievements has been to make a Manchester United title win almost popular, as it was back at the end of 2006-07. The following year saw many a chortle at John Terry's hand-of-clod miss in Moscow as United took the competition that most dominates Chelsea's dreams - and nightmares - the Champions League.

Ancelotti has done something to change the club's public image, and in spite of the PR disasters that have followed John Terry, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole. In remaining publicly unruffled in the circus ring, and unmoved by those desperate to dredge up a crisis, Ancelotti has made himself popular and much admired.

And this season has not been without its successes. Chelsea began the season wreathed in praise, and compared to the very best in history. Until defeat last Sunday, his team had delivered as good a run of results as has been seen in the English Premier League this season. Those periods sandwiched a spell in which Ancelotti had rugs pulled from under his feet, first in the mysterious departure of Ray Wilkins and then the arrival of an unwelcome and ill-fitting gift in Fernando Torres. The revival happened in spite of the circumstances handed to the Italian, yet he has ploughed on regardless, doubtless knowing his fate but retaining his dignity throughout. His departure should be lamented. And it will be.

Mourinho's occasional but not unusual lapses into paranoiac doggerel eventually made his exit cause for celebration, while Avram Grant is still yet to receive the charisma transplant he required. Luiz Felipe Scolari was avuncular enough, yet we never got to know him before he was removed by the type of putsch that has been a feature of a Stamford Bridge dressing-room for which leaks do not refer to a dodgy roof.

Guus Hiddink's short spell as caretaker when Chelsea won the cup in 2009 now looks to be key to Abramovich's next move. Yet the Dutchman, employed in Turkey anyway, does not want the job full-time and would bring in another coach to work with him. Thus, both Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten are linked and, though the former meets the supposed criteria of having previously won a Champions League, his record has been lacklustre away from Barcelona.

Vague mentions have been made of a Mourinho return, an idea greeted with a smirk by the man himself at White Hart Lane last month, while Andre Villas-Boas, Jose's supposed heir, has equally shooed-off linkage with the Bridge. The only certainty of Chelsea's summer is the end of Ancelotti, all but acknowledged by a rueful shrug and a lift of that famed left eyebrow in post-match at Old Trafford.

And so Chelsea will be looking for a manager with Champions League success and titles galore to his name with the added ability to work under the pressures of owner interference and steepling targets. Now just where could they find someone like that?

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