Torres pick backfires on Ancelotti
When Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich handed over a £50m cheque to Liverpool in exchange for Fernando Torres, it was with nights like a Champions League quarter-final at Manchester United specifically in mind.
Torres has been portrayed as the ultimate vanity purchase, with even Sir Alex Ferguson convinced his arrival was a sign of Abramovich's grand, but unfulfilled, obsession with Europe's elite competiton.
So it was no surprise, at least not to Ferguson, that Ancelotti was unable or unwilling to resist the forces guiding him to play Torres ahead of Didier Drogba in a game that may well define the immediate future for both the Italian and Chelsea.
Ancelotti's decision backfired spectacularly in front of his notoriously impatient owner as Torres suffered public humiliation on a grand scale, lasting only 45 minutes before being hooked off as United ran out deserved winners, not only on the night but over two legs.
Abramovich slipped away into the Manchester night seconds before the final whistle, leaving Ancelotti to admit he may have botched the biggest decision of his Chelsea career and that his destiny is now out of his hands.
"I have to work," he said. "I have to try to do my best. It's not my decision whether I stay or don't stay. I haven't spoken with Roman Abramovich."
Torres sits in the stands after being replaced at half-time. Photo: AFP
Ferguson had expected Torres to start the game, declaring: "Having signed Torres for the money they did, they had to play him. I couldn't see how they could leave him out."
United's boss refuses to apply price-tag logic to his own team selections. A prime example is his continued faith in £6m Javier Hernandez at the expense of £30m Dimitar Berbatov - a decision rewarded again as "The Little Pea" scored the goal that put Ferguson on the way to another Champions League semi-final.
Hernandez was full of movement and menace - in sharp contrast to Torres, who played in a fog of lost confidence, a pale shadow of his former quicksilver and predatory self.
The folly of Ancelotti's decision to cast aside Drogba was underscored by the Ivorian's dynamic second-half display, which brought the goal that gave Chelsea faint hope, albeit until Ji-Sung Park sealed United's win less than a minute later.
Torres, however, was the main talking point - and there was no escaping the feeling that Ancelotti's own tenure at Chelsea may be wrapped up in the decision to play the World Cup winner from the start. Once that decision had been made, it had to bear fruit.
It did anything but as the Spaniard, who was deservedly regarded as one of the world's top strikers not so long ago, went through a form of public torture. Touch too heavy, flimsy in the physical exchanges and the trademark movement nowhere to be seen, he was eventually put out of his misery at half-time when he was replaced by Drogba.
Torres was signed to make defining contributions to meetings of this magnitude. Ancelotti's admission that he had seen enough after only 45 minutes offered a brutal commentary on the former Liverpool forward's current state of play and mind.
Ancelotti effectively admitted the error of his ways when asked if he had made a mistake picking Torres. "Maybe. Could be," he replied. "But I thought for a lot of time before taking this decision. I preferred to start with Fernando for this kind of game, with this kind of tactics. But Didier Drogba played very well in the second half."
Torres cut a lonely figure as he groped for his former greatness, with little support or service it should be stressed, and was reduced to bickering with referee Oligario Benquerenca long before his evening was cut short.
The rush to conclude that Torres is a spent force must be resisted, though, simply because his record deserves greater respect, while the quality he once had does not simply disappear. Still, 693 minutes without a goal at the end of this harrowing experience tells a simple tale.
Torres is also surrounded by the whiff of suspicion, strongly denied by Ancelotti, that he has to play purely because Abramovich spent such a vast sum acquiring him. No-one can doubt, however, that he is proving an uncomfortable fit for Chelsea.
Ancelotti went against his usual instincts to pair Torres and Drogba in the first leg before excluding the latter in the second. Two major decisions in Chelsea's two biggest games of the campaign, contributing to two defeats that effectively condemn them to a season free from silverware.
There will be renewed speculation that Ancelotti will lose his job but should he be under threat less than 12 months after winning the Premier League and FA Cup? Is this not credit in the bank? Is the Champions League the only currency that counts for Abramovich? All will be revealed at season's end.
If Abramovich allowed himself a look around Old Trafford on Tuesday, he will have seen the results of an almost unique model of managerial stability and continuity. Maybe there is another way apart from the default option of sacking his manager?
No such concerns for United or Ferguson as they continue their attempt to repeat the feats of 1999 and win the Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup.
And after a season struggling to rediscover the old authority, this was a performance that suggests Ferguson has got his squad peaking at exactly the right time.
Giggs and Hernandez celebrate after the latter had opened the scoring. Photo: AFP
There is no older authority playing today than Ryan Giggs. He was magnificent in creating both goals, proving that he can almost be regarded as a freak of nature as well as the consummate professional.
"The man is incredible," said Ferguson. "He's just unique as a person and as a player. His experience and composure is vital."
Giggs vied for top billing with Wayne Rooney, also back to his best when Ferguson needs him most, and Michael Carrick, whose performances in both meetings with Chelsea threaten to embarrass those of us - including many United fans - who scorned the decision to award him a new long-term contract.
United simply knew too much for Chelsea once they had survived some anxious moments in the first 30 minutes. Inter or Schalke will be afforded respect in the semi-final but Ferguson will believe they hold no terrors.
As for Chelsea, they will once again have their noses pressed up against the window when the Champions League trophy is handed out, while Ancelotti must wait to discover if his ill-fated decision to pick Torres is the beginning of the end for him.