Carlo Ancelotti has turned inscrutability into an asset. To look at the Chelsea manager suggests that, should success in football desert him, he could make a profitable living on the poker circuit. He can be laconic, but he invariably gives little away. Perhaps it is the product of eight years working for Silvio Berlusconi, but it definitely gives him an advantage at Chelsea. Because to watch Ancelotti, questions remain unanswered and that is probably the way he prefers it. Does he come into the new season stronger or weaker, encouraged or frustrated?
A definitive response is unlikely to be forthcoming but Chelsea face Manchester United today without a star signing. Their pursuit of Fernando Torres ended in failure and a deal for Ramires, the Brazilian midfielder, is nearing but has not yet been finalised. Michael Ballack, seemingly released by the club rather than the manager, is gone, along with Joe Cole and Juliano Belletti, while Deco is likely to follow. Only Yossi Benayoun has arrived, with his new manager comparing the Israeli favourably with the departed Cole. But then, it could be argued, he would say that, wouldn't he?
Meanwhile, the job description at Stamford Bridge is subtly shifting. Manchester City have stolen Chelsea's identity while Ancelotti's job is to appropriate Manchester United's; to cement a reputation as a big club, to win and to do so on a budget. Last season's league and cup double was an ideal start but, increasingly, the Italian has to ape another part of their rivals' character: while the Chelsea pensioners and the United old guard contested last season's title, Ancelotti's task is to oversee a similarly successful youth policy.
The Premier League's 25-man squad rule, coupled with the shortage of Englishmen at Stamford Bridge, means Ancelotti is only likely to name 22 senior players in his squad. It offers added opportunities to the long promised, but rarely seen youngsters. Besides replacing thirty-somethings with twenty-somethings, he has to bring through teenagers. Some could be among today's substitutes.This, then, is a balancing act.
Transition and trophies rarely go hand in hand, but Ancelotti's objectives are to secure both. Roman Abramovich's ultimate goal is the Champions League, the club's stated aim is self-sufficiency. Reconciling two such radically different objectives is a task that would confound many. Ancelotti, poker-faced, betrays few of the stresses and strains it must contain. His is a unique job. Those who doubt that player power is an issue at Stamford Bridge should be invited to view the evidence from the World Cup. Didier Drogba's influence was apparent in the choice of Sven-Goran Eriksson as manager of Ivory Coast; John Terry and Nicolas Anelka's rebellions against the coaches of England and France were unmitigated failures but revealing nonetheless.
These are the men with whom Ancelotti deals on a daily basis, ones who have outlasted a host of his predecessors. They are lauded by the Chelsea support and, in some cases, disliked outside the club. So man-management and diplomacy, important elsewhere, are essential skills at Stamford Bridge. Benayoun, the intelligent, inventive footballer that he is, appears more the owner's signing than the manager's - as indeed did Yuri Zhirkov last year - but do not expect Ancelotti to admit as much; Jose Mourinho was undermined when Andriy Shevchenko was thrust upon him, but Ancelotti's spell at AC Milan provided a crash course in the behaviour of interventionist billionaires.
And, lest it be forgotten, there is the football. Fashioning a successful team in that context is no given; thrillingly and decisively, Ancelotti managed it last season with 103 goals in the Premier League and a decisive victory at Old Trafford to rubber-stamp Chelsea's championship. So the reunion today has intrigue. Three meetings last season brought three Chelsea wins, one on penalties in the Community Shield, to suggest a shift in the balance of power in the English game. Not that it would be easy to determine that from Ancelotti's expression.