Carlo Ancelotti has revealed a desire to manage Steven Gerrard in the future after claiming the Liverpool captain is without peer among midfielders in the modern game and "one of the best players in the world".
The Chelsea manager attempted to temper his praise by insisting the Londoners were not about to renew their interest in signing the England midfielder. Yet Ancelotti's admiration of the man who inspired the Merseysiders to defeat his Milan team in the 2005 European Cup final was clear with his comments delivered, perhaps mischievously, with the champions due at Anfield tomorrow.
"Obviously Steven Gerrard is one of the best players in the world and I'd like to manage him one time in the future," said Ancelotti. "In Italy, when I played, there were players like [Giancarlo] Antognoni at Fiorentina, or [Rainer] Bohnof in Germany. Today there is Gerrard. Full stop. He is the complete midfielder. He can play as a holding midfielder, or he can attack with fantastic shots, passing and skills. I'd want to manage him because he's one of the best players in the world and, if you manage players like that, it's easier to win.
"I don't know him as a person, but I think he's a good man. I've managed a lot of fantastic players over the years, and he's one of the best. I read that Chelsea tried to buy him [in 2005], but that was many years ago. We never tried to buy him while I was at Milan because we always thought it would be impossible because Liverpool didn't want to sell. I don't know how much he'd cost. I'm not interested because I don't have the money to buy ?" Asked whether he would like to coach the 30-year-old in an England shirt, a Chelsea shirt or a Liverpool shirt, he added: "I don't know. Besiktas? Or [in] Dubai."
That was said with tongue firmly in cheek, with Ancelotti apparently only expressing his appreciation of Gerrard's considerable talent. Yet, had José Mourinho been as explicit in his desire to work with an opposing player on the eve of a game on Merseyside, the comments might have been considered more inflammatory. The current Chelsea manager is very aware of the threat posed by the Liverpool midfielder having suffered at his hands in Istanbul five years ago and after witnessing his blistering 14-minute hat-trick against Napoli on Thursday night.
That performance in the Europa League tie prompted Roy Hodgson to liken Gerrard's influence on Liverpool to that of Diego Maradona at the Neapolitans. Asked if one man had ever been as pivotal for a team as the midfielder is at present, Hodgson said: "I'm certain if you go back there are others - Diego Maradona at Napoli was a classic example - but Steven's contribution to this club over the years has been phenomenal. We saw the very best of him on Thursday because his first goal wasn't the result of his wonderful technique and understanding of the game, it was purely his desire and determination to reach the ball when he was far from favourite to get there. And to put his body on the line, and risk injury, epitomised his performance.
"More and more we bring players into our teams who are gifted individuals, but they don't always have that fight in them as well. Football has changed, and in [Jamie] Carragher and Gerrard we do have two of a dying breed: they are Liverpool through and through, and not only that but they have the quality, guts and desire to play for Liverpool. Most managers would say they are the type of player we really want, but they are much harder to find these days. United have their share with [Paul] Scholes and [Ryan] Giggs, but if you go through the Premier League these days it's not so easy to name many of them. We recruit talent from abroad, but they might not have that burning heart which refuses to accept defeat, as Steven did against Napoli."
"Gerrard knows very well the tradition and history of his club," said Ancelotti. "He's happy to wear the shirt. The shirt is 'inside' him. It's the same as John Terry with us, and was with Paolo Maldini at Milan. They're very good examples for the young players or those who arrive in the new team. They show the right behaviour of what is expected of them as a Liverpool or Chelsea player."
Ancelotti, who will again be without Frank Lampard at Anfield but may have Florent Malouda and Michael Essien available again after injury, admits the memory of that frenetic evening in Istanbul when his Rossoneri surrendered a 3-0 half-time lead to Liverpool still haunts him. "They are a special opponent for me," he added. "I have to remind people, also, that I was at Roma in 1984 when Liverpool beat us on penalties in the final. That means it's 2-1 to them against me, and maybe I can have revenge in the future.
"It wasn't easy recovering from that defeat in Istanbul. We'd played a fantastic game and it takes time to get over losing a game when you were winning 3-0. Mourinho reminded me a lot of times about it, and I didn't need that from him. Sometimes I still think about it, and it means I'm not sure we're safe in any game. If we're 4-1 up against Spartak Moscow, I can't relax because I remember that a team can concede three times in six minutes. I can only relax with five minutes to go."