Napoli was meant to be the make-or-break match for Andre Villas-Boas. In the end, he didn't make it past West Bromwich.
In acting before tomorrow's FA Cup fifth-round replay at Birmingham City, Roman Abramovich decided that the Premier League's youngest manager couldn't be trusted even with the two games leading up to a Champions League second leg.
That uphill task – Chelsea trail Napoli 3-1 – looked every one of nine days away following the further darkening of the Stamford Bridge landscape and the Russian owner responded in the ruthless manner to which Claudio Ranieri, Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Carlo Ancelotti know he is accustomed.
Defeat against a deserving West Bromwich Albion at The Hawthorns did more than leave Chelsea three points adrift of the Premier League fourth place that is seen as their owner's absolute minimum requirement. Just as damagingly, it underlined that Villas-Boas had lost the fight to keep his bigger hitters onside.
This wasn't the 2009-10 Double winners going under with all guns blazing, as Albion's goal bore a charmed existence. It was justice over the 90 minutes; it was a conquest, fair and square, for a united force against a disparate one.
I stood a few feet from the 34-year-old Portuguese as he conducted the final press conference of his tortuous tenure. In the crowded press room he was dignified, polite and contrite. He described his side's performance as "very, very bad" but made sure he was seen to be taking responsibility for it. He probably knew his time was up.
If he had believed the victory over Bolton Wanderers had represented the turning of a significant corner, Saturday's events exposed such thinking as fanciful. Frank Lampard, the final scorer seven days earlier, was barely visible until he side-footed wide in stoppage time from the sort of opportunity he has devoured for a decade and a half. Didier Drogba had no impact in the penalty area. Fernando Torres was restricted to another cameo of utter irrelevance. Others were culpable too, Daniel Sturridge and Juan Mata, in particular, having afternoons to forget.
Only Ashley Cole was exempted from blame by his manager – although that was harsh on the goalkeeper, Petr Cech – and if this was the players pulling behind their boss, Chelsea supporters must be dreading the time when some of them demonstrate they really aren't that bothered.
Had Chelsea been on a winning streak rather than on a run of three victories in 12 Premier League games, stories such as those of questionable high jinks at the training ground, misguided comments from David Luiz and a rift between Villas-Boas and Lampard would have been peripheral irritations. At a time of crisis, they became another stick with which to beat the manager. His sacking appeared inevitable and yesterday just became the chosen day.
Cole left his side with 10 men for the final seconds after being helped off with an ankle injury that makes him a likely absentee for the start of Roberto Di Matteo's caretaker reign. And here's an irony... the Italian was deemed, late last winter, not to be good enough for Albion. The warm reception he was given on his first return showed gratitude for the promotion he had accomplished with some style the season before.
The West Bromwich chairman, Jeremy Peace, had noted the availability of Roy Hodgson – licking his wounds after coming under a harsh spotlight at Liverpool – and he ousted Di Matteo before there was anything like the debate that has surrounded Villas-Boas's position for weeks.
Albion's third successive victory, sealed by Gareth McAuley's stretching finish eight minutes from time, emphasised how strongly Hodgson has re-emerged; strongly enough for him to be viewed as an interesting outsider in the search for Fabio Capello's successor as England manager.
One or two more results like this against leading clubs will open Football Association eyes, Albion having previously lost 15 successive top-flight games against Chelsea going back 33 years. Villas-Boas was still in nappies when Danny Blanchflower's side were beaten by an Alistair Brown goal here in 1979.
The second half was an especially sad epitaph to the AVB reign. Albion carried by far the greater attacking threat and might have scored more than one goal three weekends on from their 5-1 Black Country derby victory that cost Mick McCarthy his job at Wolverhampton Wanderers.
"Andre has lots to fall back on," Hodgson said on Saturday teatime. "He's a Uefa champion. I'm pretty sure he would not have lost confidence in his ability to do the job. The good times soften you and make you think the job is easy. The hard times make you realise it is a profession which demands a lot of people. It demands a lot of leadership qualities from people and this is when those qualities are going to be honed."
WBA: FOSTER 6/10; REID 7; McAULEY 7; OLSSON 7; RIDGEWELL 7; MORRISON 7; MULUMBU 8; ANDREWS 7; ODEMWINGIE 6; FORTUNE 7; THOMAS 6
Chelsea: CECH 7; COLE 7; CAHILL 6; LUIZ 6; IVANOVIC 6; LAMPARD 5; ESSIEN 6; RAMIRES 6; MATA 6; DROGBA 6; STURRIDGE 5
Scorers: West Bromwich Albion McAuley 82.
Substitutes: West Bromwich Tamas 6 (Reid, 57), Brunt 7 (Thomas, 64), Long (Fortune, 84). Chelsea Malouda 6 (Sturridge, 64), Torres (Essien, 76), Meireles (Ivanovic, 84).
Booked: West Bromwich Ridgewell, Andrews, Brunt. Chelsea Cole.
Man of the match Mulumbu. Match rating 7/10.
Possession: West Bromwich 49% Chelsea 51%.
Attempts on target: West Bromwich 7 Chelsea 2.
Referee P Dowd (Staffordshire). Attendance 24,838.
- More about:
- Chelsea F.c.
- Jose Mourinho
- Premier League
- Stamford Bridge
- UEFA Champions League
- West Bromwich Albion