The rights and wrongs of Carlo Ancelotti’s predicament boil down to one key question: was Fernando Torres his signing or another expensive plaything for Roman Abramovich? There is the strongest of suspicions that Torres is another Andriy Shevchenko, the striker Abramovich foisted on José Mourinho, in which case one can only sympathise with Ancelotti, who was good enough to lead Chelsea to the Double last season.
His pedigree is such that it is difficult to envisage him consistently preferring the hopelessly out of form Spaniard to Didier Drogba, unless it was under the owner’s influence. In that case, some will contend that Ancelotti should have been stronger and resisted his employer’s interference, but it should be born in mind that not even the imperious Mourinho stood up to Abramovich when it came to the recruitment and use of Shevchenko, who was clearly past his best.
Chelsea’s restorative victory underlined the folly of accommodating Torres at Drogba’s expense. Restored to the starting line-up, the Ivorian made it impossible to leave him out again, turning in a man-of-the-match performance in which he scored one goal and facilitated others for Salomon Kalou and Frank Lampard. In contrast, when Torres got on in his place, after 82 minutes, he miskicked horribly at close range. He did get the ball in the net on another occasion, but from an offside position, and he has now gone 12 games without scoring.
In fairness to the principals, criticism of the record-breaking signing is made with the benefit of hindsight, and we should remember that it seemed like a major coup at the time. Torres scored 22 for Liverpool last season and his acquisition during the January transfer window was expected to galvanise both him and a Chelsea team in need of invigoration. Instead, he has gone from bad to worse, giving rise to a new joke in west London football circles: “How can Fulham fans complain about that Michael Jackson statue? Their figure of scorn cost them nothing – ours cost us £50m.”
Elimination from the Champions League brought matters to a head for Ancelotti, and with his job in jeopardy, he grasped the nettle and dropped the misfit. Not only did he recall Drogba, he reverted to the 4-3-3 formation that best suits the players, and especially their mountainous centre-forward. With no second striker taking up his ground, and serviced by two wingers, the big man was back to his bullying best, getting through a prodigious amount of work all over the pitch.
Typical of his contribution was Chelsea’s third goal, which saw him dispossess Peter Odemwingie on the left touchline near the halfway line and send Florent Malouda sprinting away to cross for Lampard, who finished with dead-eyed accuracy from 16 yards. West Brom entered the fray in good heart, unbeaten in seven and up to 10th in the table, and fancied their chances of a third win in succession when Odemwingie beat Petr Cech to Jerome Thomas’ short through ball to put them ahead after 17 minutes.
How wrong they were. Chelsea took the body blow, climbed off the deck and hit back in devastating fashion. Drogba’s equaliser was the product of a howler by Nicky Shorey, but once equality had been restored only one outcome was likely. The kaleidoscopic use of the ball by the soon-to-be-ex-champions was a delight, purposeful and incisive, and only resolute defence prevented a repeat of the six West Brom conceded in the corresponding fixture at Stamford Bridge on the season’s opening day.
After praising Drogba’s performance, Ancelotti pointed to the significance of the bout of malaria that enfeebled his match-winner for much of the season.
“For months he was not 100% fit‚” the manager said. “Now he is able to use his power and his ability for the team again. He has been a very important player for the club in the past and will be in the future. Torres was not bought to replace Didier.” Chelsea are likely to be unchanged at home to Birmingham on Wednesday, Ancelotti confirming that Torres would be “involved” again. “I’m hoping Fernando will score,” he said. These days it is a matter of hope, rather than expectation.