After complaints of buying championships, having a Russian billionaire owner and playing horrible football, has Mauricio Sarri made Chelsea likeable again?
Ahead of Thursday night’s trip to BATE, the question is being asked: are Chelsea likeable again? The short answer to that question is “no” and the longer answer involves saying the word “again?” in a state of mock incredulity.
As to the slightly more complex question, “Has Maurizio Sarri made Chelsea more likeable?” the answer is “probably.”
For a while, during the pre-Roman Abramovich era, Chelsea were genuinely popular with neutrals as a succession of world-class imports like Ruud Gullit and especially Gianfranco Zola brought previously unheard of levels of style to the English top-flight.
There were limits however. Their previous owner, Ken Bates, believed in keeping fans penned behind electric fences and their popularity with other clubs stemmed from the fact they were seldom a threat for the league title.
Post-Abramovich, rival fans became almost numb to Chelsea. Able to trump any rival bid, for any player in the world, their achievements were belittled, usually by fans of clubs who had themselves bought their successes, albeit on a less obvious scale.
Their managers, however, have usually been popular, demonstrating one of English football’s odder characteristics: you can like the manager while disliking the club and vice versa.
The first was Claudio Ranieri. When Charlton fans sang “you’re getting sacked in the summer” after beating Chelsea 4-1 at the Valley, he brought the house down down by saying: “No, it will be in May.”
Even Jose Mourinho was popular when he first arrived, his arrogance leavened by humour, such as his put down of Alex Ferguson when he complained about Chelsea’s budget: “My Porto side beat his Manchester United with 10 percent of his budget.”
Avram Grant was by all accounts a thoroughly nice man, even if no one was quite sure why he was there. “Big” Phil Scolari was horrible on the touchline but genial off the field, Guus Hiddink was both admired and sensible enough to stay on short-term contracts and Carlo Ancelotti had statesmanlike qualities. Andre Villas Boas was misunderstood, perhaps chiefly by himself. Roberto Di Matteo was an icon from his playing days even before winning the Champions League and even Rafael Benitez was tolerated in a marriage of convenience.
Antonio Conte’s reign was like an adrenaline shot after Mourinho’s second spell ended in “failure”. Fans and pundits may have liked him but you can’t be that hostile to your players (and more pertinently directors) and expect to hang around. By the end it was blatantly obvious Conte didn’t even want to.
Which brings us to Sarri, a manager who only ever played the game as an amateur and who has been through nearly as many clubs as Chelsea have been through managers. In his opening press conference he said: “my goal is to have fun for as long as I am here,” which was as much a reflection on the fact he’d manager 19 teams in 28 years as it was on Chelsea’s track record.
He seems to be having fun at the moment, although he is a de facto coach rather than a manager. The players, relieved that Conte is no longer threatening to kill them on a daily basis, have responded to his methods and are unbeaten in the league and all of this is taking place against a backdrop of continuing uncertainty around Abramovich, who became an Israeli citizen in May.
There were no marquee signings during the summer, just Jorginho from Napoli and Mateo Kovacevic from Real Madrid and he lost one of the continent’s best keepers in Thibaut Courtois.
Manchester City’s pre-eminence means Chelsea’s wealth has been, if not forgotten, then at least temporarily overshadowed. Sarri knows he’ll be in London for two years at the most and that he could plausibly be gone by Christmas if results tail off, but in these circumstances if he can win the title it will arguably eclipse the three won by Mourinho and those won by Ancelotti and Conte.