MATT BARLOW analyses why Chelsea are struggling to keep up with the pacesetters.
Flimsy squad, no room to tinkerLast summer, five highly-paid internationals were trimmed from the first-team squad: Michael Ballack, Joe Cole, Ricardo Carvalho, Deco and Juliano Belletti. In came Yossi Benayoun, Ramires and up stepped Jeffrey Bruma, Patrick van Aanholt, Gael Kakuta and Josh McEachran from the Academy.
Pastures new: Ricardo Carvalho and Joe Cole are two of five senior internationals to have left Chelsea since the end of last season
It took around £20million off the wage bill but Ancelotti did not share Frank Arnesen's belief that the Academy graduates were ready for a full campaign.
The manager has used the youngsters sparingly, preferring to run the old guard into the ground, leading to tiredness as injuries and bans took their toll. Nobody should be surprised by lapses in concentration and mistakes like that which led to Aston Villa's late equaliser on Sunday.
Ancelotti's first team can claim to be the strongest in the country but, along with Wigan, Chelsea's senior squad of 19 (including three keepers) are the smallest in the Premier League. The squad are not as good as last year, not as big or as experienced. Nobody is fresh. Hence the flying start and sudden halt.
Old guardJohn Terry and Ashley Cole turned 30 last month. The front three of Didier Drogba, Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka, are all in their 30s, as is Chelsea's most prolific midfielder, Frank Lampard. But, more than age, it is condition.
With no options, Drogba has toiled on through malaria, a disease which wrecked Kolo Toure's form to the point where he was sold by Arsenal with his career assumed in terminal decline.
Anelka hasn't scored since November 3. Malouda scored seven in his first nine Premier League games and has added just one since. Lampard has missed four months after a hernia operation.
Old guard: (From left) Drogba, Malouda, Terry, Lampard, Cole and Anelka are all over the age of 30
Signings since Mourinho leftNicolas Anelka (£15m) - Jan 08: 52 goals in 147 appearances, few sulks. 7/10.
Branislav Ivanovic (£10m) - Jan 08: Slow start but now a vital defender. 8/10.
Jose Bosingwa (£16m) - July 08: Fluent attacker, sloppy defender, bad injury. 5/10.
Yuri Zhirkov (£18m) - July 09: Little contribution, now out injured. 2/10.
Yossi Benayoun (£6m) - July 10: Two starts, one goal, ruptured achilles. 3/10.
Ramires (£18m) - August 10: Signs of improvement. Still early. 4/10.
Terry had to insist on a month off tosort out a nerve problem in his leg and has since returned in terrificform. Cole plays with an ankle problem which requires two days ofrecovery work after each game and Michael Essien manages his kneecarefully after two serious injuries.
These players still possess the character and desire to spin a game on its head, as the fightback against Aston Villa proved. Drogba was a classic example, summoning the will to overcome a poor personal display and still influence the result with an equaliser and a key role in Chelsea's third.
Such feats get harder over time, however, and these players deserve some help to preserve their talents, as Manchester United have provided for Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, by weaving youth into the team's fabric without damaging the overall quality.
King Carlo?Ancelotti can hide behind what look like boardroom clangers letting Ballack, Joe Cole and Carvalho leave, promoting the youngsters too fast and sacking coach Ray Wilkins.
But the Double-winning former AC Milan manager has risked his popularity and reputation in the dressing room by accepting the decisions and refusing to engage in a political battle with owner Abramovich. Jose Mourinho didn't mind skirmishing with the owner but this is a different Chelsea.
Up for the fight: Carlo Ancelotti accepted the changes decided by the board, something Mourinho would never have done
UEFA's Financial Fair Play initiative comes in from the start of the 2013-14 season, based on financial records from 2011-12. It is aimed at ensuring clubs do not spend more money than they generate.
Abramovich is also a different man and has been for some time, trimming costs, encouraging the Academy and prioritising bargains in the transfer market. For all the talk of Kaka, Alexandre Pato, Sergio Aguero and Fernando Torres, none have been signed.
OptionsAbramovich is expected back in London this week after his New Year holiday in the Caribbean, and history suggests he will be thinking of firing the manager, having seen the team slump to fifth.
The club, however, have been at pains to point out they are sticking by Ancelotti. It will be refreshing if it's true. Why fire him if the new man will be expected to work under the same restraints? Why sack him and suddenly change policy?
Back the bid: Chelsea reportedly only offered half the asking price for Benfica defender David Luiz
There will be no return to the early days of largesse but Abramovich can fund a quick fix in January. Defending the title is not out of the question if he accepts the squad need repairs and follows Ancelotti's direction in the transfer market, starting with a central defender or two.
He could up the bid for David Luiz, valued by Benfica at £35m, if he is considered to be the answer, or pay half as much for Gary Cahill if the manager prefers an English option, as he says. Maybe he could even add cover in midfield or up front.
Alternatively, he could step away from pulling the trigger and back Ancelotti to develop a new Chelsea on a new budget. There are promising youngsters at the club like McEachran who will develop given time and careful handling.
That means funding the Academy and identifying young players from elsewhere with sell-on potential. That will take patience and accepting success won't happen overnight.
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