What may prove the most significant match of Chelsea’s season will take place on November 18 at the Ljudski vrt Stadium on the left bank of the river Drava in Maribor, Slovenia.
It is unusual in that there will be no Chelsea players on the pitch, and the fixture is a play-off for entry to a tournament in which Chelsea can never compete.
On that night, however, what the Slovenians call their nogometni hram, the temple of football, will stage the second leg of a tie against Russia for a place in the World Cup finals.
Old pals: Guus Hiddink greets ex-Chelsea charge Michael Ballack after Russia's defeat by Germany
This game will decide whether Guus Hiddink is to be a free agent or not. And that is very important for Chelsea indeed, because Hiddink’s employment status may well influence how patient Roman Abramovich, the owner, chooses to be with his coach Carlo Ancelotti, and whether he is given time to fix the little flaws that are beginning to appear in his plan of action for Chelsea this season.
Hiddink unattached is a dangerous guy. He is a threat to Ancelotti, although he probably does not mean to be. It is fair to assume that, right now, he is focused solely on steering Russia to the World Cup in South Africa and fulfilling his obligations there until his contract ends in 2010.
No doubt he felt the same way last season, too, until a familiar voice explained that Luiz Felipe Scolari, a World Cup winner with Brazil in 2002, was not coming up to scratch in his first club job in Europe. Shortly after, Abramovich paid a visit to the Cobham training ground, Scolari was gone and Hiddink installed as Chelsea’s manager on a temporary basis until the end of the season.
It was a swift and ruthless coup, which is how Abramovich likes them, and there is no
indication he is plotting one around Ancelotti just now because the drama of consecutive away defeats has yet to become a crisis. So far, the worst that has happened is Ancelotti has lost two league games at Wigan and Aston Villa, and attracted doubts over the success of his diamond system, particularly the role played by the influential Frank Lampard.
This is nothing compared to the succession of mishaps that befell Scolari: a thumping defeat at Manchester United, beaten at home by Liverpool and Arsenal, knocked out of the League Cup by Burnley, a draw in the FA Cup against Southend United. Scolari was sacked because Abramovich lost faith to the extent he feared his team would lose to Juventus in the last 16 of the Champions League and had the portent of a 3-1 defeat by Roma in the group stage to back him up.
There are few such blemishes on Ancelotti’s record so far. Results have generally been good, although it is widely acknowledged that his Chelsea team is yet to scale the heights with its level of performance.
Scolari’s Chelsea, by contrast, showed early signs of brilliance, not least in a 2-0 win against Aston Villa on October 5, 2008, that was as good as anything seen at Stamford Bridge in several years. At that moment, they were talked of as champions with some certainty.
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So the mood can change very quickly. What seems merely a blip can rapidly become a bust in the eyes of Abramovich, particularly if Hiddink, a manager who left the club a hero after winning the FA Cup and being cruelly deprived of a place in the Champions League final, is suddenly at a loose end.
This is not to indulge Abramovich’s capricious nature. After so many changes since the departure of Jose Mourinho, he surely has to give Ancelotti a proper go. Chelsea are alone among the top four clubs in England in regularly replacing the manager and these policies have yet to yield one of the blue riband trophies - the Premier League or the Champions League - since Mourinho left.
Ancelotti has the advantage of being Abramovich’s first pick - which, apparently, Scolari was not - and is expected to work on a reduced budget that may include a transfer ban by FIFA. Then there is the looming challenge of the Africa Cup of Nations which could deprive him of two holding midfield players, Michael Essien and John Mikel Obi, and his main striker, Didier Drogba, plus Salomon Kalou, for a month.
Managing Chelsea is no cake-walk, then, yet having lost back-to-back matches away from home it is the nature of the club that the first whispers of dissent are being heard, along with a murmur of speculation suggesting the owner is not a man who tolerates unsatisfactory results for long.
Scolari’s training was said to lack intensity - sessions under Mourinho were famously furious and even John Terry said some of the tackles made him wince - but that will be no problem for Ancelotti.
AC Milan and Juventus were known as two of the fittest teams in Europe and he will have transported many of his ideas to the training camp at Cobham.
There is a similarity, however, in styles of play between Ancelotti and his Brazilian predecessor, because Scolari employed a South American system with overlapping full backs and a guarding midfield player, Obi, who slotted in as an extra centre half, while Ancelotti utilises a midfield diamond which also lacks width, meaning the full backs are up and down like pistons and Essien guards the central defenders.
It was said that not all of Chelsea’s players were comfortable with Scolari’s system, so it is likely they will not universally favour this one.
Chelsea players like 4-3-3 because that is what Mourinho played. He was a strong character and they won the league twice using his methods, and that often makes a squad of players resistant to change.
Hiddink, being Dutch, was not averse to 4-3-3 either, and some of his ideas would have been like home from home to players who remain very much under Mourinho’s spell. The owner’s impatience is one problem, but the main difficulty Chelsea managers face is that they are not Mourinho. A successful manager with a compelling personality can ruin the dressing-room for his successors because the players want to stick with what worked before.
The most persistent criticism of Ancelotti is that his tactics are failing to bring the best out of Lampard, arguably the most important player at Chelsea with 20 goals from midfield each year. This season, Lampard has not scored in 10 games and has just one club goal, against Sunderland on August 18. Ancelotti’s diamond is widely blamed.
At first, Lampard was deployed as the forward point, which placed him at a disadvantage for scoring because it put him in the thick of the action. Lampard’s talent is to arrive from deep, a fraction later, but with the game laid out in front of him in a position to see the spaces and the best scoring positions. Played too far forward, he is crowded out. Yet Lampard has subsequently been moved to one of the middle roles, on inside left or right, and that is little different to where he played with great success under Mourinho.
The clock's ticking: But Carlo Ancelotti deserves the support of Roman Abramovich
The only drawback remains that Chelsea now operate with two strikers in Drogba and Nicolas Anelka and Deco behind, so that is a lot of traffic for Lampard to negotiate on his way to the box.
So has Ancelotti stopped Lampard scoring? Not indisputably. Lampard went 10 games without a goal under Scolari between November 4 and December 22 last year. Indeed, that run was more worrying because Chelsea’s form dried up at the same time. Lampard may not be on the score sheet for 10 games under Ancelotti but Chelsea have won eight and lost two of them, because Drogba is in scintillating form.
Last season, Scolari was at loggerheads with Drogba, too, so Lampard’s bad streak saw Chelsea’s form nosedive and the 10 barren games contained just three wins, all against weak opposition, Blackburn, West Bromwich and Bolton. Chelsea drew with Burnley (but lost on penalties), Newcastle, Bordeaux, West Ham and Everton, and were beaten by Roma and Arsenal. And it was not as if Hiddink’s brief spell brought the goalscorer out of Lampard. He scored once in Hiddink’s first eight games and once in his final nine.
There is no doubt that Ancelotti’s system needs work but it is equally likely that Lampard, who is a brooder when things are not going well, relies on confidence for inspiration and his goals come in bursts. He has gone through peaks and troughs throughout his career, and there is no stronger evidence of that than his England form which evaporated with astonishing haste so soon after being voted player of the year two years running.
Now Lampard is back to his best under Fabio Capello but in a deeper, more defensive role. It is an irony, then, that his England goals have outstripped his club goals this season by three to one.
So Ancelotti needs to get Lampard back on track quickly because, if he does, chances are it will be the first of a few and, when he and Drogba hit form together, Chelsea are unstoppable. Despite the defeat at Villa, Chelsea’s passing and counter-attacking play on Saturday was of a high standard and should be too much for tonight’s Champions League opponents, Atletico Madrid.
At any other club, Ancelotti would be guaranteed time to iron out the wrinkles and the subject of managerial change would not even be broached. This is Chelsea, though, and they have previous.
Ancelotti needs a few good results to see off the spectre of Hiddink, not least a Russian win in Maribor. The game may be out of his control, but the last thing he wants is Slovenia giving his boss ideas.
Wrong still to doubt Button class
And still the talk continues. On crowded flights returning to Europe from Sao Paulo, the pedigree of Jenson Button remained a hot topic. If he hoped that his drive to clinch the F1 world championship at Interlagos would establish his credentials beyond doubt, he was mistaken.
Under-fire: Jenson Button
And if he thought that, by taking fifth under pressure from a 14th-placed start, he would be revered as a driver of flair and courage, he would do well to cover his ears.
The argument now advanced is that given the Brawn GP car any reasonable driver would have worked his way through the field and two drivers who started behind Button - Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel - actually finished in front of him.
This is true, but it is not the whole story. Hamilton and Vettel did not make their moves knowing that one mistake, the tiniest misjudgment of an opening, could lead to humiliation. They did not take their chances with the world title at stake. Button did. Every call he made around that track was potentially significant, each little choice could have had disproportionate repercussions.
A similar situation frazzled Hamilton’s cool two years ago and he came close to crumbling under the strain last season. So Button did brilliantly in Brazil; he rose to a challenge in a way that startled his critics and it is unreasonable they remain so grudging.