When Andre Villas-Boas was asked yesterday whether his team's performance in the Champions League would be the terms upon which he was judged by Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea manager shook his head and said that was an incorrect assumption to make.
Who is he kidding? Carlo Ancelotti won the Double in his first season at Chelsea but came up short badly against Internazionale in his first year and then Manchester United last season so that when he was shown the door in May it did not even come as a surprise. The Champions League is the final frontier at Chelsea and the man in charge is expected to conquer it sooner rather than later.
It is worth remembering that tonight against Bayer Leverkusen is Villas-Boas's Champions League debut too, although he has his triumph with Porto in the Europa League on the table. As ever yesterday, this bright young manager tip-toed diplomatically around the myriad of problems and expectations laid at his door. Unfortunately, they are never far away from the surface.
His decision to drop Fernando Torres on Saturday was a bold move and, as such, it had to work. It certainly did, but almost too well because, in Daniel Sturridge, who scored a brilliant second goal against Sunderland, Villas-Boas now has a young player who could potentially be to Chelsea what Javier Hernandez was to Manchester United last season. But can the manager afford to play him at the expense of Torres?
The likelihood is that Sturridge, who was suspended for the first three league games of the season, will operate wide of Torres tonight in Villas-Boas's preferred 4-3-3 formation. In an ideal world, with Didier Drogba injured and Torres out of form, Villas-Boas would no doubt like the option of deploying Sturridge as a centre-forward with two natural wingers either side of him. But he knows he has to persist with the £50m Torres.
Villas-Boas has a studied manner of speaking which is designed to make him sound as unlikely as possible to cause controversy but even he could not deflect from the two major points around Torres at the moment: that the player was "not happy" at being dropped on Saturday, and that his recent comments in Spain about his team-mates were a concern.
Torres, and his goalscoring form of one in 22 games for Chelsea, is the elephant in the room and until that improves a tension will exist in the team. The Champions League, Villas-Boas claimed yesterday, is harder to win than the World Cup and it certainly does not make it any easier when you are trying to accommodate an expensive out-of-form striker and an extremely ambitious owner while maintaining the balance in a squad bursting with egos.
On the targets agreed with Abramovich when he took the job this summer, Villas-Boas was unwilling to expand. "I don't think it's fair to share those conversations [he had with Abramovich]. Let's put it generally: we must try to win all the competitions we're in, with a certain flair and style. That's our priority... it's the most difficult to win, for sure. I don't think I'll be judged on it. I don't think so. But it's not for me [to say that]."
In the Champions League, there is a fine line between a manager looking like a genius and finding himself out embarrassingly early in the knockout stages as Ancelotti did in his first season at the club. It will be no different for Villas-Boas in the New Year when he is – barring a disaster between now and Christmas – into the business end. There is one school of thought that Ancelotti never recovered, in Abramovich's estimation, from the two-legged defeat to Jose Mourinho's Inter in his first season.
"This club has been present in semi-finals, one of them [lost on penalties] and we came close in the first one against Liverpool," Villas-Boas said. "Then they [Chelsea] made it to the final, where they merited it. They were close again when Barcelona reached that first final. I don't want to repeat myself, but we've been close to getting it. We just try to be close again this season, to go all the way."
But as Villas-Boas knows but is too smart to say, he has not been brought in to get Chelsea close to winning the Champions League. He is there to win it.
Three key confrontations: where tonight's match will be won or lost
John Terry v Stefan Kiessling
The England captain will be in for the type of physical challenge that he relishes tonight against the 6ft 4in Kiessling, who will lead the line for the German side. Terry may have to follow the former Nuremberg striker down either channel, while always wary of the prospect of Kiessling spinning in behind him. After an exceptional 2009-10 season, in which he scored 21 league goals, Kiessling struggled last year, but the 27-year-old has already netted twice in Leverkusen's five matches so far this season.
Juan Mata v Michal Kadlec
Mata has the ability both to beat defenders and drop back into space, making him a dangerous opponent for Czech international Kadlec. Should he stick to the Spaniard and get dragged out of position? Or will he gift him space and time on the ball?
Branislav Ivanovic v Sidney Sam
Even though he plays there regularly, the suspicion remains that Ivanovic does not have the agility of a natural right-back. He will have an interesting battle this evening with Bayer Leverkusen's 23-year-old left-winger Sidney Sam, a surprising and quick-footed player who may just have the beating of Ivanovic in one-on-one situations.Reuse content