Carlo Ancelotti will send his side out against Bolton Wanderers tonight with his position as Chelsea's manager apparently under no immediate threat despite the champions having slipped to fifth after enduring their worst league run in 11 years.
A chastening defeat by Arsenal on Monday and Tottenham Hotspur's win yesterday ensured Chelsea, five points clear at the top of the Premier League towards the end of October, have now slipped out of the Champions League places and will be sixth if they are beaten at Stamford Bridge tonight. Yet Ancelotti seemingly retains the confidence of his squad and the owner, Roman Abramovich, despite a solitary win in eight league games.
The Chelsea hierarchy are keen to distinguish between the team's current travails and those suffered under the previous permanent manager, Luiz Felipe Scolari, two seasons ago. The Brazilian was sacked in February 2009 after eight months in charge, with some £12.6m then paid in compensation to Scolari and his three-man backroom team. There is a recognition now that any potential pay‑out on Ancelotti's £6m-a-year contract, which has 18 months to run, and his staff would seriously set back the champions' drive towards self-sufficiency.
Although failure to qualify for the Champions League would potentially have more significant implications on the club's immediate financial future, the feeling of concern is not laced with panic, and conviction remains that Ancelotti is capable of reviving the team's fortunes. He won the Double with Chelsea last season and had eight years at Milan, whereas Scolari was relatively untried in European club management.
The Italian's future was not brought up at a board meeting this month, with a source at the club claiming there was "no sense from the board or from the owner" that change was imminent. Abramovich, who is on holiday, is not expected to be at Stamford Bridge this evening but will watch the game from afar apparently confident that the man whose signature he personally pursued for more than a year, until prising Ancelotti from San Siro, remains the best to lead this team.
Whether support would erode should Bolton win and replace Chelsea in fifth remains to be seen, though it is clear that Abramovich would not be able to turn to the team's stopgap saviour from 2009, Guus Hiddink, as a ready-made replacement. The Dutchman is in charge of Turkey and contracted until 2014 and is committed to a plan he submitted to the country's football federation this month to remodel the game there.
"There is no chance of him going back to Chelsea, no chance," Hiddink's agent, Cees van Nieuwenhuizen, said. "This is a completely different scenario to last time, when Abramovich was involved with the Russian Football Federation and an agreement could be reached. The Turkish federation would not allow him to combine roles and he is not interested in walking out on them."
Chelsea face games against struggling Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers after Bolton, matches they would normally expect to win. "I think the manager is coping very well," said the goalkeeper, Petr Cech. "He's got lots of experience. Being manager of AC Milan, there's a lot of pressure and last season there was a period where he was under a lot of pressure here and yet we turned things round and won the double. We will try to do the same thing."
Nicolas Anelka may return against his former club after knee trouble, his availability potentially counter-balanced by the absence of Mikel John Obi with a knock to a knee, but the flimsiness of Chelsea's squad, and the lack of options available to Ancelotti, have been exposed in recent weeks.
Confidence has drained with form disintegrating too often on the pitch. "We are making the wrong choices all over the pitch, defensive-wise and attacking-wise," Cech said. "We have stopped doing the things we were doing at the start of the season when we didn't concede goals and we were scoring a lot.
"At the moment, we can't find the same rhythm and we are making wrong choices so you can see that we are making lots of wrong passes. Every time we attack we are offside and we are making mistakes too in the defensive third. This is exactly the reason why we are not winning games.
"We can't find the right chemistry on the pitch. We try to find a solution, we keep working and we are not throwing the towel in yet because we know everything can change fast. But we know as well that if we keep going like this then we will have a bigger disappointment in terms of chasing the title."
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