Andre Villas-Boas has admitted that his captain, John Terry, would be "a massive loss" if he did not recover full fitness for Chelsea's Champions' League game at Napoli tomorrow night. As the tie will have considerable bearing on the young manager's employment prospects, he would feel Terry's absence all the more. Nor can he have been given any great confidence by the manner in which two expensive centre-halves, Gary Cahill and David Luiz, were troubled by a Championship team's reserve strikers on Saturday as Birmingham City earned a deserved FA Cup replay.
Terry has missed the last four matches, in which Chelsea have leaked seven goals and not kept a clean sheet – having not conceded in the four previous ones when he was alongside Luiz. It was during the first of those games, the FA Cup third-round tie against Portsmouth, that he first suffered a knee problem after colliding with a post, and despite playing on three subsequent occasions he was forced to take a break after the fourth-round victory at Queen's Park Rangers.
"It would be a massive loss for us," Villas-Boas said. "He's a player of great importance. I will leave it as late as possible and make a decision on him after the training of the team in Naples. Of course JT is a great leader, gives you an extra emotional push. If he misses out on Tuesday, then we will miss a top, top player and a player who gives us great defensive stability."
Convinced that the club's owner, Roman Abramovich, is still behind him, Villas-Boas must nevertheless be aware that he needs to go through over the two legs of the Champions' League tie, which under the new format have been stretched out over a period of three weeks. Before the home leg, Chelsea will have the opportunity to make up lost ground in the Premier League with games against Bolton and Stoke (at home) and West Bromwich Albion (away), as well as the replay against Birmingham.
"Napoli come into the game after a good result at Fiorentina [3-0]," he said. "It's important for us to be competent and to bring the game to Stamford Bridge with a win or a draw, ideally a scoring draw. Then we can finish the business here." He was even tempted, a little unwisely perhaps, into looking beyond this round of the competition: "If you go past Napoli then you can have a really good chance, if you get a good draw. First Napoli, then we will see who we draw out and then we will see. But we are in with a really good chance. It will be a massive challenge. Everyone saw what Napoli did in a group which put another English team out."
That team, of course, were Manchester City, held at the Etihad and beaten 2-1 in southern Italy, unable to cope on either occasion with the interchanging front three of Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi. While agreeing that Cavani is "amazing", Villas-Boas says: "Their strength is in the collective spirit; they have an inner belief in each other"
It is tempting to ask how Chelsea compare on that score and whether their belief extends as far as the manager. Didier Drogba was reported to have been delivering a pep-talk to his team-mates in the tunnel at half-time after being brought on as replacement for poor Fernando Torres. Villas-Boas continues to insist that the Spaniard will regain form and confidence, which he finally agrees the player is lacking, but he could not continue to indulge him on Saturday when the prospect loomed of a home defeat by a lower division side – it would have been Chelsea's first at home in the Cup since Oxford United beat them more than 20 years ago.
David Murphy had exploited poor defensive work at a corner to put Birmingham ahead and after Colin Doyle brilliantly saved Juan Mata's penalty, it required a header by Daniel Sturridge to prevent serious embarrassment. A bad result this season against Birmingham, revitalised by Chris Hughton, has led to four managers losing their job: Sven Goran Eriksson (Leicester), Steve McClaren (Nottingham Forest), Adie Koster (Bruges) and Simon Grayson (Leeds). Villas-Boas lives to fight another day in another competition, and Hughton expects him to be in the opposite dugout for the replay on 6 March.
Chelsea: CECH 7/10; IVANOVIC 7; CAHILL 6; LUIZ 6; BERTRAND 6; RAMIRES 6; MIKEL 5; MEIRELES 5; STURRIDGE 6; TORRES 5; MATA 7
Birmingham: DOYLE 8; MURPHY 7; IBANEZ 7; DAVIES 7; CARR n/a; GOMIS 7; FAHEY 7; REDMOND 7; MUTCH 6; ELLIOTT 6; ROONEY 6
Scorers: Chelsea Murphy 20. Birmingham City Sturridge 62.
Substitutes: Chelsea Drogba 6 (Torres, h-t), Kalou 5 (Mikel, 57), Lampard (Mata, 83). Birmingham Spector 6 (Carr, 12), Jervis (Rooney, 71), Burke (Elliott, 83).
Booked: Chelsea Cahill, Luiz. Birmingham Mutch.
Man of the match Doyle. Match rating 7/10.
Possession: Chelsea 54% Birmingham 46%.
Attempts on target: Chelsea 5 Birmingham 5.
Referee M Atkinson (West Yorkshire) Attendance 36,870.
At least Villas-Boas is doing things his way
talking football, page 8