James Lawton: Every potential great needs time Villas-Boas won't get it


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With their groaning balance sheet and unassailable belief that they have the price of anything and anyone they might ever need, Manchester City may not be the most engaging model of the football future. But then it is also true that you have to take only the briefest glance at the club whose situation they have most closely mirrored, and now threaten to eclipse utterly, to see they have got something right – and consummately so.

What they have done is put their faith in a football man. This has not, of course, involved the most blinding flash of insight. There is, after all, no record of a football club who ever achieved the possibility of dynastic greatness without such professional leadership.

Certainly it is true you had only to witness the weekend writhing of Chelsea's young Andre Villas-Boas, Roman Abramovich's seventh serving manager in as many years, to understand the monstrous uncertainties the oligarch has created at Stamford Bridge.

By comparison, Roberto Mancini luxuriates in the knowledge that he has already endured the kind of tests of judgement and questions of confidence that would have shot any of his Chelsea counterparts out of office.

Some of us, it has to be acknowledged, would have been less than shocked if the Italian had fallen at some of those hurdles.

For a considerable time he looked like the owner of a Ferrari reluctant to move out of the lower gears. He went to places like Old Trafford and the Emirates and Stamford Bridge with game-plans so sterile, so lacking in any sense of gathering belief in the quality of his hugely expensive squad, that you wondered if City, for all their resources, would ever play their way out of their own shadows.

He had to operate in the slipstream of Spurs when they beat him out of a place in the Champions League, a catastrophe that some were inclined to attribute to a killing level of caution. He signed Mario Balotelli in a move that seemed so eccentric, so designed for permanent disruption, it put you in mind of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Yet Mancini kept the faith of his Arab owners, he had the confidence and backing to face down the inveterate malcontent, Carlos Tevez, and now he operates from a foundation of strength that goes deeper maybe even than the one which persuaded former Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon to announce that the Premier League race had come to involve a "bunch of one".

That power was the gift of Abramovich, a point he made soon enough with savage disdain for the achievements and knowledge of Jose Mourinho.

Now Mourinho's protégé Villas-Boas defends a suddenly imperilled position with arguments that imply the possibility of logic which so far we've had no compelling reason to associate with the Stamford Bridge regime. Why, Villas-Boas asks quite plaintively, would the oligarch have splashed out £13m on his signing, then pack him back off to Portugal at the first hint of difficulty?

Why? For the same reason he chopped down all the others. Because he doesn't understand how a successful football club works, doesn't begin to grasp why it might be that imposing his friend Andrei Shevchenko on Mourinho, and, even more disastrously, Fernando Torres on Carlo Ancelotti, amounted more or less to acts of sabotage. He doesn't understand that making a football team is not quite like assembling the masterpieces of art with which he can console himself after a bad day at the Bridge. A football team is composed of moving parts and it's an extremely good idea to put some faith in someone who knows how it works.

Mourinho had a way of playing that drew huge dividends from the extraordinary power and mobility of Didier Drogba. Shevchenko's arrival made a nonsense of the strategy. Ancelotti was shaping the possibility of a season's recovery – less than a year after winning the English double at his first attempt – when the Torres parachute landed in the Fulham Road.

Will Abramovich show any of the patience granted to Mancini by Sheikh Mansour? If he does, it is not likely to be for the reasons advanced so optimistically by Villas-Boas.

When the coaching prodigy was still an untested teenager trying his theories on Sir Bobby Robson back in Porto, Abramovich showed up at the dockside in Lisbon for the finals of the European Championships. He moored two super-yachts and filled the quay with a fleet of Mercedes and uniformed chauffeurs. A stream of supplicants, much of the cream of European football, came to pay their respects.

It is an image of power and purchasing wealth whimsically applied that lingers in the mind even as Villas-Boas suggests the oligarch might be on the point of mending his ways.

If Villas-Boas cannot any time soon stiffen his defence and create the kind of rhythm and assurance that went so critically missing in the home defeat by Liverpool, which marked Chelsea's first consecutive losses at home since pre-Mourinho days, it is hard to imagine a new Abramovich prepared to play the longer game that is almost invariably required in the building of any lasting football success.

Much easier to anticipate is an SOS call to Guus Hiddink, the one serious football man to leave the employment of Abramovich still firmly in control of his own destiny.

The Dutchman, who came so close to beating Barcelona for a place in the 2009 Champions League final, says he will spend a little time contemplating his future at the end of his contract with Turkey.

But then, as he points out, he is always given a warm welcome by the oligarch and it is also true there is a vacancy for a director of football at Chelsea.

It might not be the worst of news for the embattled Villas-Boas. Hiddink might just explain that even the greatest of coaches needs a little time, even if he costs you £13m and without a single guarantee.