Carlo Ancelotti will win friends in England, but will he bring success to Chelsea?
By Paddy Agnew in Rome
Former Reggiana goalkeeper Ettore Gandini is not a player many will know well. He features in a chapter called Seven Minutes In Serie A in my own book on Italian football, Forza Italia, and I mention him simply because of something he once told me about his former club coach, Carlo Ancelotti.
Years after Ettore had dropped out of football – his career was cut short by injury – he reluctantly went to visit his old boss, who by that stage had risen through the coaching ranks to the lofty heights of Milan. Ettore, like most of those who played under Ancelotti, had the highest possible opinion of him, from both human and professional viewpoints, and that day at Milanello, Ettore was not disappointed.
Ancelotti greeted him with open arms, immediately offering to see what he could do about some work for Ettore. Ancelotti was then, and still is, the Italian equivalent of a “decent auld skin”.
While no one yet knows how things will go for Ancelotti in his new position of Chelsea manager, it is safe to say he will almost certainly – like his compatriot Claudio Ranieri at Stamford Bridge before him – win himself a whole host of new friends.
If Chelsea fans were worried about this appointment, perhaps they will have learned much from the new man’s first interview with the club’s own television channel.
For months, Ancelotti had been declining to do interviews in English. On the last evening of the Italian season, minutes after Milan had beaten Fiorentina 2-0 in Florence to confirm their Champions League spot, he went on Italian TV to announce he was leaving the club. But when the interviewer suggested that meant he was off to Chelsea, Ancelotti denied it was a done deal and persuaded a group of quote-hungry British journalists that his English was far too rudimentary to do an interview. Yet, next morning, there he was on Chelsea TV giving a long, lucid and perfectly understandable interview – in English – to announce his appointment as the new manager.
The point is, Ancelotti might be a very decent guy but that does not mean he is a fool. Arguably, he is just about the perfect appointment for a club like Chelsea. After all, he has a proven track record at the highest level – two Champions League trophies and one scudetto at Milan – as well as an equally well-proven ability to survive and succeed at a club owned by an immensely powerful, outrageously rich and occasionally interventionist boss – namely, current Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
By comparison, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich will probably seem like the shy, retiring type. While Italian media sources over the years have consistently speculated that Berlusconi imposes his own – not always welcome – views on his coach’s choices, Ancelotti has always begged to differ, saying: “We talk often. He keeps himself constantly informed about the team but he has never imposed anything on me and he would never do it because Berlusconi is an intelligent man.
”For Milan, Berlusconi is everything. He has set the bar for the club, laid down the rules of behaviour for everyone and determined the club’s philosophy. His presence is a big help. He is absolutely not a problem, indeed he’s very rarely here. In fact, if he were here more often, it would be easier for the coach to train this team.”
How will he make out at Chelsea? Over the years, Ancelotti has been nothing if not pragmatic. As he points out himself, a side’s game plan revolves around its key players. At Juventus there was Zidane, while at Milan, of course, there was Kaka. With players like that, you let them get on with it.
“Before a match, I never tell Kaka where to play,” he reveals. “He handles the situations himself, he decides whether to move forward or back 10 metres. He follows his instinct and that is just fine by me.”
Not for nothing, Ancelotti was believed to be working hard to persuade another of his talented, creative Milan midfielders, Andrea Pirlo, to move to Chelsea with him. Having lost Kaka to Real Madrid, Pirlo would have been the next logical choice in the search for a player who would add quality to the Chelsea midfield.
So, are there no reservations about Ancelotti at Chelsea? Well, there are a couple of things. For a start, he has always seemed very laid-back, someone who was more than happy in his own backyard. Yet, the efficiency with which he has set about learning English would suggest that he has every intention of making a major fist of it in London.
But a second consideration is perhaps more serious. After all, Ancelotti was the man in charge on two of the most celebrated debacles in recent Italian football history. He was the Juventus coach on the 1999 spring night that Manchester United came from 2-0 down to beat them 3-2 in Turin and go on to win that year’s Champions League. Then, of course, there was that sensational 2005 Champions League Final in Istanbul when Liverpool came from 3-0 down against Milan to win the trophy. For Italian critics, those were two matches that simply could and should never have been lost.
Has he learned from that? We should soon find out.