With crisis turning into catastrophe and his sacking as Chelsea manager looming, Carlo Ancelotti was saved, for a while at least, by a man thought to be his most weak-minded player.
Nicolas Anelka's gloomy disposition, reluctance to accept authority and reputation as a troublemaker earned him the nickname "Le Sulk" long ago, and with Chelsea's season collapsing hurriedly, the French striker may have been the last person one would expect to stand tall and engineer a revival.
Yet just four days after messing up a penalty shootout attempt vs. Everton that hastened Chelsea's FA Cup exit, Anelka produced a barnstorming, two-goal display to sink Champions League opponent FC Copenhagen and, barring a horrendous second-leg meltdown, book his side's place in the quarterfinals.
Elimination in the round-of-16 stage would have left Chelsea with nothing to play for this season and in all likelihood would have seen Ancelotti clearing his desk Thursday morning. Instead, for all the recent doom and miserable performances, Tuesday's 2-0 result ensured there remains some life in the West London club's campaign and the opportunity to win the one trophy owner Roman Abramovich covets more than any other.
If Tuesday night marks a turning point, the fact that its fuse was lit by Anelka will go down as an extraordinary twist. The 31-year-old's feet are laced with rare talent, yet his head has been occupied by demons for most of his career. Bitter Champions League memories still fester.
Anelka came on as a late substitute in the 2008 final against Manchester United, the closest Chelsea has ever come to lifting the trophy. After Chelsea captain John Terry slipped and hit the post on the effort that could have clinched glory, Anelka stepped up for his shootout attempt and could only aim a tame strike within easy reach of Edwin Van Der Sar, sparking United delirium.
If ever there was a time that Anelka's frail mindset would be exposed, this would be it. Chelsea's form has been woeful in recent months, and the criticism has poured in. The arrival of Fernando Torres, whose record signing contract has drawn the gamut of attention, means that either Anelka, Didier Drogba or the $79.5 million man himself must start on the bench each week.
On Tuesday it was Drogba who made way, giving Torres another chance to open his Chelsea account after a disappointing start to life at his new club. But instead, it was Anelka who grabbed the headlines.
This kind of form makes it increasingly unlikely that a move for Anelka to Major League Soccer, a rumor widely reported in the French media earlier this month, will take place any time soon. L'Equipe newspaper claimed that Anelka was disillusioned with Torres' arrival and a likely shift down the pecking order – and was considering joining his compatriot Thierry Henry at the New York Red Bulls.
Forget about that for now, especially with Ancelotti suspecting he has found something that could get him out of trouble. Whatever his initial thoughts about Torres' signing, Anelka is now benefitting from the defensive attention the Spaniard commands, opening up extra space and freedom for himself.
"Anelka was able to score, and Torres had a lot of opportunities that he created with his movement," said Ancelotti. "[Our season is] still alive. I had this idea before the game and I maintain it now. We are not dead."
Chelsea still has deep problems, and Ancelotti's stint in charge is likely to end as soon as his team is knocked out of this competition. For now, though, he is still alive and kicking, after a night when "Le Sulk" took the chip off his shoulder and came to the rescue.