Chelsea can avoid a winter of discontent
Andre Villas-Boas knew the post of Chelsea manager was the proverbial hot seat but just four months in he probably did not expect to find himself in the electric chair. The Portuguese insists his side's form is such that he is not surprised by whispers demanding his swift execution, but he can take solace that he is not alone on the road to perdition.
In truth, Villas-Boas's assertion yesterday that there were "no excuses" for three defeats in the last four Premier League games, that at such times it was natural that "the head of the manager is called for execution" said more about the persecution complex he appears to have inherited from Jose Mourinho, his erstwhile mentor, than it did about any groundswell of support for the notion of his dismissal.
"I understand at the moment why we are going through this, so I am not worried about the comments," he said, ostensibly unaware that defeats to Arsenal and Liverpool, in particular, have been greeted by pleas from punters and pundits alike that Roman Abramovich's firing squad should not yet train their sights on the Portuguese.
"I want to get my team back to winning ways. As we enter a run of results, we do not want to go into the negative spiral this team went through last year. The emotions these players lived then are enough to make them want to avoid that stigma again."
The shadow of that calamitous run of 10 points from 11 games, a winter of discontent which effectively sealed Carlo Ancelotti's fate, looms large over Chelsea. To many, it embodies the fatal flaw in Abramovich's top-down ownership model: that he is more inclined to decapitate than to strike at the heart of the problem. The managers change, but the issues remain the same.
Chelsea's players, needless to say, do not quite see it like that, summarily dismissing the idea that they are only too happy to have their multitudinous failings masked by the elimination of the man tasked with curing them. "We always take our responsibilities," said Florent Malouda ahead of this evening's Champions League tie at Bayer Leverkusen, in which a win would guarantee Chelsea's qualification for the knockout rounds.
"Given how things have been with different managers, I do not think the solution is looking at different managers. We are the ones going out on the pitch and performing in a good or bad way. We have all the ingredients – board, manager, technical staff, players – to perform."
It is an attitude diffused among the squad. Villas-Boas, yesterday fined £12,000 for his comments about the referee Chris Foy after defeat at QPR but expected to ask for written reasoning of his punishment, has been heartened to see his senior players stand behind him. They have faith in him; he is happy to return the compliment.
David Luiz, such a target of scorn, "will evolve into one of the best central defenders in the world," just like Gerard Pique. Alex, a bit-part player under his regime, was a "coup" and he remains "one of the best readers of the game".
And, most crucially, Villas-Boas remains absolutely adamant he can implement his high-intensity style with a group of players largely assembled to win the league title seven years ago. "These are players of immense talent," he said. "They can adapt to different styles. When we played with a high line against Liverpool, we scored and might have scored again. We are happy with the way we are playing. The philosophy will be the last thing that is changed." Aside, Villas-Boas must hope, from the manager.
Simon Rolfes v Frank Lampard
As Chelsea's forwards all seem to be misfiring, it will be imperative that a rejuvenated Lampard continues to add thrust from midfield to supplement Chelsea's limited goal threat up front. Rolfes will be the man tasked with subduing him.
Stefan Kiessling v Alex
With David Luiz appearing to struggle as a reliable partner for John Terry, his fellow Brazilian has the chance to impress by keeping a close guard on the German forward. Leverkusen frequently play direct to Kiessling, meaning Alex will need to be permanently alert to the long ball.
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