Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas is likely to keep his job even if the club are eliminated from the Champions League next week, though the first substantial sense that his players are beginning to doubt him emerged in the aftermath of the desperately poor Carling Cup defeat to Liverpool on Tuesday.
Villas-Boas, whose tenure is looking increasingly precarious, is benefiting from the fact that Roman Abramovich remains deeply preoccupied by his court case against Boris Berezovsky, which has now reached the stage of the barristers' closing remarks and will not conclude until the New Year. But while it seems that Chelsea's owner does not want to make another managerial change and is finding the legal case all-consuming, it is understood that Chelsea's perplexed players were surprised to be asked to play in a midfield diamond formation in the 2-0 defeat to Kenny Dalglish's side – despite not even having tried that formation out in training.
The set-up, which left Chelsea without width to exploit Liverpool, has compounded the doubts about a manager whose apparent inability to settle on a stable core to the team is another source of scepticism within the Chelsea ranks. The side's defence is constantly changing and despite his occasional willingness to remove Frank Lampard to the bench, the manager does not seem able to wean himself off a dependence on the 33-year-old, who has performed excellently at times when called on this season. The prospect has receded of Guus Hiddink, out of work following his resignation as Turkey's national manager, being eased in at Chelsea, and Villas-Boas has enough credit to avoid dismissal even if a defeat at Newcastle on Saturday precedes a loss to Valencia. Chelsea must win or secure a goalless draw at home to Valencia next Tuesday if they are to avoid failing to make the knockout stage for the first time in the Abramovich era.
Abramovich also seems to concur with Villas-Boas' own assertion that it would be foolish to spend £13.3m on a manager, only to sack him within five months. But while there are efforts to maintain a sense of calm about Chelsea's five defeats in nine games, the Portuguese is likely to be dismissed if there is no sign of improvement by January and indications that they are slipping out of the top four. Hiddink's position in the wings may then become significant again, though it is understood the Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala or even PSV Eindhoven may move for him.
Abramovich was told by his advisers in August that Chelsea may struggle to maintain their top-four position if they did not replenish an ageing squad. There was activity – Juan Mata, Raul Meireles and Romelu Lukaku came in – though Villas-Boas' decision to give some players time, rather than undertake an entire overhaul, has not worked. It has also put Villas-Boas at odds with technical director Michael Emenalo, who argued for more wholesale changes.
Villas-Boas has more freedom to spend in the January transfer market than Carlo Ancelotti ever enjoyed and, as such, controls his club's destiny more than any manager since Jose Mourinho arrived and brought in Didier Drogba, Petr Cech, Michael Essien and Ricardo Carvalho in the summer of 2004. Though the spending will not be as vast as that, a number of players may well go in January – primarily Nicolas Anelka, Drogba, Salomon Kalou and possibly Florent Malouda. There are also doubts within the club as to whether Lukaku, the 18-year-old signed from Anderlecht this summer for £18m, is, quite frankly, good enough. He is not seen as one of Villas-Boas' acquisitions, the groundwork having been done before the new manager arrived.
Ladbrokes last night had Villas-Boas at even money to be out of a job by January and Chelsea 9/1 to win all their games this month. After Valencia, they face Manchester City, Wigan, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa.
Liverpool remain on course for their first Wembley appearance for 16 years – an absence so great that midfielder Jordan Henderson, who was four when Roy Evans' side beat Bolton Wanderers in the 1995 League Cup final – was not even aware of it. "I didn't know that. For such a big club, you'd have thought we'd been at Wembley since then," he said.