It is fascinating to see how two rival managers each reacted to Chelsea’s exit from the Champions League earlier this month. When quizzed on it Arsene Wenger replied “they have a mental disadvantage and a physical advantage in the longer run. I know how hard it is to get over a disappointment like they faced in the Champions League.” Carlo Ancelotti’s comments on his team being knocked out were of someone who tried to see the positives in it- what you would expect from the manager. He said: “Mentally, it wasn’t good for us to go out of the Champions League. But after the victory against Portsmouth, this moment is finished. We have to look at every game. That could be an advantage for us. Before, we had midweek games. We are disappointed to be out of the Champions League, but it could be an advantage. The quarter-finals will take out a lot of energy, not only physically but mentally. The pressure is the same for all the teams now. We are arriving towards the end of the season and every game is very important. The pressure is normal at this stage of the season.”
In the main, Arsene Wenger, someone who is usually very honest with comments he makes in the media, is underlying the point that an exit from Europe’s premier club competition at only the last-16 stage will not necessarily work in Chelsea’s favour. Ancelotti’s comments about the team not having to play midweek and seemingly the Stamford Bridge team getting over their defeat papers over the cracks. Chelsea regularly repeat how they have a desire to win the Champions League but usually suffer the heartbreak of not going further in the competition until at least the semi-final stage. What the early exit does is create that much more pressure on them to deliver the Premiership crown. It is not clear whether it works as an advantage or not either. When Manchester United failed to qualify from the group stages in the 2005/06 season they only won the Carling Cup that season. Chelsea, on the other hand, are right in the title race and could end up retaining the FA Cup. If previous experience has shown us that Roman Abramovich is ruthless with his managers then it seems imperative that Ancelotti wins the league this season- the FA Cup may not be good enough.
Wenger is a great believer in mental and physical advantage but being involved in two huge competitions only drives the team forward. Referring to United again, they have been to the Champions League final in each of the last two seasons and won the Premiership in the last three seasons. Obviously that meant they had more fixtures than their league rivals but the incentives are greater if you have more silverware to play for and any mental or physical tiredness does not really come in to the equation- that is noticeable only when you are in a slump. Therefore, should either Arsenal or United suffer defeat at the quarter-final stage will we see a possible drop in morale. Ancelotti has to be careful with how he views the exit from the Champions League- surely he would rather be in the competition than not in it?
Out of the three English teams that were still in the competition at the last-16 stage it could be argued that Chelsea had the toughest draw out of the trio. The fact that Arsenal breezed past Porto has meant that Wenger’s side have had the luxury of concentrating on their league form- whilst Chelsea’s two games against Inter Milan were real tests. Wenger also probably made the comments that it is good to be in the Champions League because Arsenal are arguably going to be playing the best team in Europe when the quarter-final commences. Should they see of Barcelona, their path to the final and even to win the trophy for the first time is as tough as it gets. Perhaps this has made him take a “nothing to lose” approach. How many Arsenal fans would complain if Barcelona knocked the Gunners out and both teams played to their maximum? However, the consequences for Chelsea were more crucial as they were at least second favourites to win the trophy.
The tables have turned on Chelsea this season and in terms of Arsenal, considering the need for them to start winning trophies; they have a chance to prove that progressing in the Champions League is far from a hindrance on the quest for domestic honours. Wenger has had his fair share of disappointing and earlier exits from the Champions League than Chelsea have in the last five years so you can be sure that he will use that as a spur to do well in Europe and prove that Arsenal can finish above them in the league.
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