Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sort it out, you Muppets - Part II

Call me suspicious. Call me a conspiricist. Call me a cab. But something stinks in SW6. No sooner has Carlo Ancelotti charmed sports hacks into defusing speculation about his future at Chelsea Football Club, than Frank Arnesen, the shadowy 'Director of Sport' (er...what else does a football club do?) announces his resignation in order to "seek a new challenge".

According to Chelsea's currently overworked communications department, the Dane's exit at the end of the current season will be amicable and "no surprise" to the club's hierarchy. Admittedly, Arnesen probably feels his job is done, now the stated aim of getting at least one member of the club's academy into first team action has been achieved. The sight of Josh McEachran (17), Patrick Van Aanholt (20), Jeffrey Bruma (19) and Gael Kakuta (19) all turning out last week in the near-nasty 2-1 Champion's League win over Slovakian minnows MSK Zilina shows some progress. But, at risk of taking a cynical tone, this is not much of a return on the investment.

When Arnesen was poached from Spurs in 2005, he was quoted as saying: "Our target is to find an academy player and bring him through to the first team in two years' time." Clearly that was a stretch target. In the absence of any major 'marquee' signings over the last couple of seasons, Chelsea have - to their credit - given more prominence to the younger squad members this season. But a lengthening injury list - with the likes of Terry, Lampard, Benayoun and Alex undergoing treatment, Bosingwa making a slow recovery from his long-term absence, Carvalho sold to Real Madrid, Mancienne put out on permanent loan, and Michael Essien falling to a three-match suspension, there has been more necessity to pressing the cadets into service than just their individual development.

Although the official announcement of Arnesen's resignation was probably brought forward by The Sun  and others running the same  "EXCLUSIVE" on Saturday morning, the timing is nonetheless unfortunate. It came on the back of the PR bungle of Ray Wilkins' dismissal, three league defeats out of four matches, and preceeded Manchester United moving ahead of Chelsea on points in impressive style with their 7-1 hammering of Blackburn.

This weekend's away fixture to Newcastle United will pile even more pressure on an otherwise relaxed Ancelotti: a club losing two key backroom figures, league games and the top spot in quick succession, is one in desperate need of a morale boost. Whether that will come at Newcastle's expense remains to be seen. But as the Christmas season looms, and fixtures against Everton, Marseille, Tottenham, Manchester United, Arsenal and Bolton before the year's out, Ancelotti will need some festive spirit to keep Chelsea - which had been seemingly running away with the 2010-2011 Premier League title - even in a European place for next season.

Much, it has to be said, depends on one Roman Arkadyevich Abramovich. Players win games, and managers choose the players to win those games; but with so much of what happens in and around Chelsea dependent on, or influenced by, an owner with little or no tolerance for failure - or indeed anything he takes a dislike to - it's no surprise that Ancelotti is currently the bookies' second favourite manager to get sacked (the favourite, ironically, being West Ham's Avram Grant, another former Abramovich victim).

I couldn't comment on whether something is rotten in the state of Denmark. But something is definitely not right in the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. A short walk up the Fulham Road from Fulham Broadway tube station will lead you to all the Shakespearian tragedy you could ever want to experience at a single football club.

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