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Ancelotti’s return to floundering Chelsea a reminder of better times

  • April 18, 2023

MADRID: Under a fortnight ago, Chelsea owner Todd Boehly picked up the phone and called Blues great Frank Lampard to return to the club and try to steady the ship.

In another world, it might have been Carlo Ancelotti on the line to the American. Instead Ancelotti returns to the Stamford Bridge dug-out on Tuesday strictly as an opponent, guiding Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final second leg clash.

Madrid’s veteran president Florentino Perez brought the Italian back for a second stint at the helm, after Zinedine Zidane walked away again in 2021. While they trail Barcelona in La Liga this season, Madrid are showing every sign that they could add a 15th European crown come the final in Istanbul on June 10.

Madrid carved out a 2-0 lead against the Blues in the first game with goals from Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio, and they could easily have added more. At the other end, former Chelsea duo Thibaut Courtois and Antonio Rudiger made important saves and blocks to leave Lampard’s side empty-handed.

Ancelotti’s return to Chelsea evokes warm memories of one of the finest ever Premier League sides, which he led to the club’s first ever league and FA Cup double in 2010 – they were halcyon days in stark contrast to the Blues’ recent slump.

The Italian’s Chelsea side featured big characters including Didier Drogba, John Terry, Michael Ballack and Lampard himself, and they racked up 7-0, 7-1 and 8-0 triumphs at the Bridge as they strolled to domestic glory.

Chelsea’s current expensively-assembled hodgepodge of players lacks both the leadership and quality of that group, as was laid painfully bare in their defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu last week.

“I am sad, yes,” said Ancelotti before that clash. “I have a fantastic memory of this club, of the people that are still working there. “I’m a supporter of Chelsea, of course, because I spent two really nice years there. “I think and I hope Lampard will be able to do a fantastic job with them.”

It was a generous line from Ancelotti, but he will hope his coach is nowhere near as magnanimous on Tuesday under the lights in London. Ancelotti was let go by then-owner Roman Abramovich in 2011, ending his brief but memorable two-season spell in charge.

Despite not being first choice — or second, or third — for the job, Ancelotti was chosen as a safe pair of hands at Madrid and helped win the Spanish title last season. Like Zidane before him, is showing excellent man management is a vital skill for Los Blancos coaches — although not the only one, as he was at pains to point out.

“I am ‘fantastic’ at managing but there are other things, because this team is well-trained,” said Ancelotti before the first leg. “If we win the Copa del Rey, we will have won every title possible in two years and there are teams who won’t win that in their whole lives.”

Ancelotti has kept squad players like Dani Ceballos, Nacho Fernandez and Asensio both hungry and helpful, with the latter netting again at Cadiz at the weekend.

Most of them, anyway. Former Chelsea star Eden Hazard has remained a fringe presence and his former fans will hope not to see him on Tuesday — if the Belgian appears, it will mean Madrid have clinched progression and the key players are being rested. “The door is open and it’s up to us to kick it open further,” said Lampard after the first leg defeat, angling for a comeback.

It will be music to Ancelotti’s ears, with his team so lethal on the break against desperate sides and the coach wise enough to play to their strengths.

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