Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas is likely to keep his job even if the club are eliminated from the Champions League next week, though the first substantial sense that his players are beginning to doubt him emerged after the desperately poor Carling Cup defeat to Liverpool on Tuesday.
Villas-Boas is benefiting from the fact that Roman Abramovich remains preoccupied by his court case against Boris Berezovsky, which will not conclude until the New Year. But while it seems that Chelsea's owner does not want to make another managerial change, it is understood that Chelsea's perplexed players were surprised to be asked to play in a midfield diamond formation in the 2-0 defeat to Kenny Dalglish's side – despite not having tried out that formation in training.
The set-up, which left Chelsea without width to exploit Liverpool, has compounded the doubts about a manager whose apparent inability to settle on a stable core to the team is another source of scepticism within the Chelsea ranks. The side's defence is constantly changing and despite his occasional willingness to remove Frank Lampard to the bench, the manager does not seem able to wean himself off a dependence on the 33-year-old.
The prospect has receded of Guus Hiddink, out of work following his resignation as Turkey's national manager, being eased in at Chelsea, and Villas-Boas has enough credit to avoid dismissal even if a defeat at Newcastle on Saturday precedes a loss to Valencia. Chelsea must win or secure a goalless draw at home to Valencia next Tuesday to make the knockout stage.
Abramovich seems to concur with Villas-Boas' own assertion that it would be foolish to spend £13.3m on a manager, only to sack him within five months. But while there are efforts to maintain a sense of calm about Chelsea's five defeats in nine games, the Portuguese is likely to be dismissed if there is no sign of improvement by January. Hiddink's position in the wings may then become significant again.
Abramovich was told by his advisers in August that Chelsea may struggle to maintain their top-four position if they did not replenish an ageing squad. There was activity – Juan Mata, Raul Meireles and Romelu Lukaku came in – though Villas-Boas' decision to give some players time, rather than undertake an entire overhaul, has not worked.
Villas-Boas will have more freedom to spend in the January transfer market than Carlo Ancelotti ever enjoyed. Though the spending will not be vast, a number of players may well go next month – primarily Nicolas Anelka, Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and possibly Florent Malouda.Reuse content