Monday, August 9, 2010

Why Ancelotti Can Be RELAXED

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First blood to United, comprehensively.

And while it is wrong to draw too many lessons from a pre-season friendly in the Wembley sunshine, Chelsea fans must be looking at their fixture list - and sighing with relief.

Four consecutive defeats, the latest coming yesterday, is not just bad form by Chelsea's standards - it is awful form by anybody's standards.

What was clear at Wembley, even before Dimitar Berbatov set the seal on United's victory, was that the two sides are in markedly different shape.

As predicted, United had used their five-game tour to Canada, the USA and Mexico to focus on being ready for the big kick-off, while Carlo Ancelotti's men are decidedly under-cooked.

Ancelotti took a big gamble on getting his mainstay players back less than a fortnight ago, asking them to rely on muscle memory and nous to get them through the first month or so.

Such an approach is not conducive to good results and United took advantage just as Ajax, Eintracht Frankfurt and Hamburg did.

At Wembley, Ashley Cole looked as if he wanted to be anywhere else, although Jose Mourinho appears to accept Ancelotti will not allow the England man to be sold against his wishes.

John Terry looked leggy, especially when he was outpaced by Wayne Rooney for Antonio Valencia's opener, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien were miles off the shape they would want to be in, Nicolas Anelka was a poor, poor substitute for Didier Drogba and Florent Malouda faded far too quickly.

It was only when Drogba emerged from the bench, aided and abetted by Daniel Sturridge, that Chelsea looked anything like they would be expected to at this stage of preparations.

Indeed, were Ancelotti's side facing Liverpool's early season fixture list - Arsenal and Manchester City first up, with their fifth game at Old Trafford - the Blues fans might be genuinely concerned.

But the fixtures computer has been staggeringly kind to the Double winners, surely explaining why Ancelotti has been willing to take his risks.

West Brom at home, Wigan away, Stoke at home, West Ham away and Blackpool at home. Surely 12 points at worst. Probably 15.

It is not until their sixth game, when they travel to Eastlands on September 25, a week before hosting Arsene Wenger's Gunners, that Chelsea will be really tested.

Another reason that Ancelotti has allowed his players to ease their way back is an awareness of the ageing process.

Realistically, this is the last season for the Chelsea team that was ostensibly constructed by Jose Mourinho.

By May, Cole and Terry will have joined Lampard, Drogba, Malouda, Yossi Benayoun and Paulo Ferreira in the ranks of the 30-somethings. Their legs will be going. They cannot play week-in, week-out, train with total intensity.

Ancelotti conceded that on Friday, too, when I asked him if the age profile of his squad was an increasing concern.

"It's difficult to answer how they will cope," admitted the Italian. "You have to pay attention on the players over 30 years old.

"But I think the names you mention, Lampard, Drogba, they're very professional. Also, physically they're very good again.

"We have to check them during the season. Last season was important to control the rests of the players. We have to maintain the same job we did last year.

"Controlling the rests is very important, to control the load of the training. I don't think we have more problems because they're a year older."

It is, evidently, an issue, less so for United and while Rooney came back only in Dublin last week, he looked markedly more ready than his England team-mates wearing blue.

Indeed, all over the park United had more zest and energy, reaping the benefits of a more exacting pre-season, indicating Fergie's determination that his side should make a flying start.

United start against Newcastle before visiting Craven Cottage and then hosting Avram Grant's Hammers, before back to back games with Merseyside's two representatives, travelling to Goodison and then hosting Roy Hodgson's side.

Ferguson will have left Wembley delighted at the condition of Rooney and the evergreen display of Paul Scholes, while Edwin Van Der Sar suggested he might, after all, be ageless.

Goals from Javier Hernandez - about as ugly a fluke as you could imagine - and Berbatov, whose finish was sheer beauty, added to the United positives, although the Old Trafford boss will expect more quality delivery from Valencia than he showed.

No doubt, though, who looked to have got his team more ready for the ordeal to come. And that is why Chelsea might consider themselves more than slightly fortunate at what they face over the next month.

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