Villas-Boas faces night to determine his destiny
Andre Villas-Boas will not even contemplate the prospect of failure for Chelsea tonight. Failure to beat Valencia, failure to maintain his club's proud record of qualifying from the group stage of the Champions League each time they have entered the competition. The future, the Portuguese admits, extends no further than 9.35pm this evening.
"We cannot speak about [what might happen if Chelsea fail to qualify]," said the Portuguese. "We have to focus on the game. I have not thought about what happens afterwards. My concentration is on the game, not what is going to happen after the game."
Villas-Boas's steadfast refusal even to discuss what defeat, or by extension victory, might mean for him and for the club he joined five months ago illustrates how high the stakes are at Stamford Bridge this evening. The 34-year-old will not talk about them, but there are two futures for Chelsea.
In one, they qualify for the last 16 and Villas-Boas's attempts to inject new life into the club gain yet more momentum. In the other, they are eliminated, and the questions and the crisis return.
Daniel Sturridge, one of the prime beneficiaries of the Portuguese's reign, maintained the Panglossian perspective yesterday that Chelsea's players are certain Villas-Boas will see out his contract, but more seasoned observers of Roman Abramovich's capricious rule know there are no such certainties, that his rule hangs in the balance.
"The mood among the players has been great," said the striker. "Everyone's happy and bubbling as a squad. Even after the losses we've had, we've always had the confidence in ourselves and the manager. The attacking style he's trying to implement in the squad does work. In the future you'll see that it works. We'll always work for him and try hard for him. We know he'll be the manager for the next three years. We're not worried about any other manager coming in because we know he's going to be here for those three years."
Lose – or manage only a score draw – tonight, and that prospect will seem more remote than it does already. It is on these moments that a manager's reign turns.
Crucial victory at Newcastle safely achieved, Villas-Boas was able to insist yesterday that his squad agree with his decision to ostracise Alex and Nicolas Anelka to the youth team and the transfer list; lose to Valencia, and the benefit of the doubt is lost too.
"The players are not being treated like criminals," Villas-Boas insisted yesterday. "The group accepted the decision. It was taken with big thoughts, not lightly. It was discussed with the players. These are top professionals and we will continue to give them everything they need.
"It was a decision based upon the run of results we've been having, and we wanted everyone focused on the future of the club. It's hard for the players to be apart from people who represent a lot to them and are their friends. But the players still have contact with us. Their professionalism and integrity will never be in doubt, but we want the right mind-set. For players on the transfer list, the reality is that, eventually, the mind-set is not the same."
Villas-Boas's uncharacteristically populist appeal to the club's fans to exhibit that they, too, retain their faith, likewise, depends on perspective. On the back of a victory which kept them in touch with the league's top three, it seems a rallying call to arms. Should Valencia attain the result they need, then it will look little more than a desperate, cynical tugging of the heartstrings, even conjuring up the image of a result from Chelsea's more gilded recent past in an attempt to stir Stamford Bridge's passions.
"The fans can have a massive impact," said Villas-Boas. "They will have to unite themselves. I know the atmosphere can be raised here, just like we did in the 4-2 against Barcelona [under Jose Mourinho in 2005]. If they do that, we would have the right ambience to take on Valencia with that extra input."
That they are in this position at all, Villas-Boas accepts, is their own fault. It is the one hypothetical he is prepared to mention. "We have ourselves to blame," he acknowledged. "The small details got away from us at Valencia and Bayer Leverkusen. If they had not, we would be sitting here having qualified."
There would be far fewer questions about his own future if that was the case, of course. That future, as he admits, begins at around 9.35pm.
Daniel Sturridge v Jordi Alba
Two emerging 22-year-olds face up on Chelsea's right flank. Sturridge, who has scored in three of Chelsea's last four games, likes to run off the wing towards the goal. Alba may be left unsure whether to follow Sturridge or not, especially if Branislav Ivanovic runs beyond him to the byline.
Oriol Romeu v Jonas
The young Spaniard Romeu has impressed with the maturity of his distribution for Chelsea, showing off the value of his education at Barcelona's La Masia. He will have a different challenge this evening, tracking the movement of Brazil international forward Jonas, who will play behind Roberto Soldado.
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