Under a fortnight ago, Chelsea owner Todd Boehly picked up the phone and called Blues great Frank Lampard to come back and try to steady the ship, with the team in shambles.
In another world, it might have been Carlo Ancelotti on the line to the American.
Instead, Ancelotti returns to Stamford Bridge dug-out strictly as an opponent, representing Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final second-leg clash on Tuesday.
It was Madrid president Florentino Perez who brought the Italian back for a second stint at the helm after Zinedine Zidane walked away again in 2021.
Ancelotti’s Madrid picked off the Blues in the first game, carving out a 2-0 lead through Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio, and they could have added further goals as they controlled proceedings.
At the other end, former Chelsea duo Thibaut Courtois and Antonio Rudiger made important saves and blocks to leave Lampard’s side empty-handed.
Ancelotti’s return to Chelsea evokes warm memories of one of the finest ever Premier League sides, which he led to the club’s first-ever league and FA Cup double in 2010, halcyon days in stark contrast to the Blues’ recent slump.
The Italian’s Chelsea side featured big characters including Didier Drogba, John Terry, Michael Ballack and Lampard himself, and they racked up 7-0, 7-1 and 8-0 triumphs at the Bridge as they strolled to domestic glory.
Chelsea’s current hodgepodge of players lacks both the leadership and quality of that group, as was laid painfully bare in their defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu last week.
“I am sad, yes,” said Ancelotti before that clash. “I have a fantastic memory of this club, of the people that are still working there.
“I’m a supporter of Chelsea, of course, because I spent two really nice years there.
“I think and I hope Lampard will be able to do a fantastic job with them.”
It was a generous line from Ancelotti, but the Italian will hope his coach is nowhere near as magnanimous on Tuesday under the lights in London.
Ancelotti was let go by then-owner Roman Abramovich in 2011, ending his brief but memorable two-season spell in charge.
– Safe hands –
Madrid are aiming to win a record-extending 15th Champions League, defending the title after their triumph over Liverpool last season, and looked streets ahead of the 2021 victors in the Spanish capital.
Despite not being the first choice — or second, or third — for the job, Ancelotti was chosen as a safe pair of hands and also helped Madrid lift La Liga last season too.
Like Zidane before him, is showing excellent man management is a vital skill for Los Blancos coaches — although not the only one, as he was at pains to point out.
“I am ‘fantastic’ at managing but there are other things, because this team is well-trained,” said Ancelotti before the first leg.
“If we win the Copa del Rey, we will have won every title possible in two years and there are teams who won’t win that in their whole lives.”
Ancelotti has kept squad players like Dani Ceballos, Nacho Fernandez and Asensio both hungry and helpful, with the latter netting again at Cadiz at the weekend. Most of them, anyway.
Former Chelsea star Eden Hazard has remained a fringe presence and his former fans will hope not to see him on Tuesday –- if the Belgian appears, it will mean Madrid have clinched progression and the key players are getting rested.
“The door is open and it’s up to us to kick it open further,” said Lampard after the first-leg defeat, angling for a comeback.
It will be music to Ancelotti’s ears, with his team so lethal on the break against desperate sides and the coach wise enough to play to their strengths.
The 63-year-old has lifted the trophy six times, twice as a player, and four times in the dug-out, recently observing he is approaching his 1,300th game as a coach.
His experience and stability are in stark contrast to Chelsea’s haphazard project, and on Tuesday they may help him highlight chasms where he once left silverware and memories.