It seems ludicrous, but 16 matches into his reign as Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas is already under pressure. A fourth league defeat in 11 matches at Ewood Park today, coupled with a victory for Manchester City at Loftus Road, would leave Chelsea 12 points adrift of Roberto Mancini's team. And that, it was made clear to the 34-year-old this week, is not good enough.
The manager's bright start has come to a shuddering halt in the last fortnight, thanks to domestic defeats to Queen's Park Rangers and Arsenal and a disappointing Champions League draw with Genk. Those three results may have been overshadowed by John Terry's alleged racist abuse of Anton Ferdinand, but they have not gone unnoticed by the club's owner, Roman Abramovich, or his lieutenants in west London. Defeat at Blackburn Rovers today would equal the club's worst league run for more than a decade.
Villas-Boas said on Thursday that in his recent conversations with Abramovich the owner had been "supportive" and was "happy" with the attacking football being played but, added Villas-Boas, "we don't avoid our responsibilities to winning titles. We will defend this philosophy to death, but what is expected of us is to win titles."
It is understood that message has been reiterated from the club's high command. Matches that end 5-3 are great, but Chelsea are supposed to be the team scoring five. Any suggestion that Villas-Boas is under pressure may seem to contradict chairman Bruce Buck's comment, last month, that the Portuguese is seen as having the potential to manage Chelsea for 15 years, but Buck said at the time that was only as long as he was winning trophies.
Yesterday Villas-Boas admitted victory at Blackburn today would not be enough. "I believe a win will put us back on track, but you need a good run of results," he said. Next month, he added, was critical. Chelsea play six league matches in 22 days from 12 December and Villas-Boas said: "In the Premier League there are too many points to be played in December. The time frame between games is short so you need almost two squads, and all the fixtures are Premier League. There are no other competitions to break your rhythm. It's a stress situation in terms of the Premier League fixture list. I think it'll be an important month."
Those comments have added significance with sources close to the club claiming Abramovich and his apparatchiks, though still supportive of Villas-Boas, are adamant the team must be in touching distance of the league leaders by the New Year. Before then Chelsea host a resurgent Liverpool – a fixture lost last season – as well as facing difficult trips to Newcastle United and Tottenham, plus the visit of Manchester City.
Villas-Boas insisted that there are no fundamental problems with his Chelsea team despite recent results and the lack of clean sheets.
"I think that when you go into a pattern like this in terms of results, the essence is questioned," he said. "Our essence is good at the moment. Our responsibilities are to win every game. When things don't go our way, we can't be happy, but there's a good spirit in the group. We create more opportunities than our opponents, but we're not finding the right efficiency. But you're not going to find that efficiency in training. That comes naturally with this quality of players. It will come. It will come."
Most observers believe that it will come against Blackburn Rovers, who are struggling and whose manager, Steve Kean, is under even greater pressure than Villas-Boas, but the latter was eager to dampen any such expectation.
"Blackburn have nothing to lose and, like QPR, they will play with a competitive attitude. Steve Kean has made some changes to his team to bring him benefit. [Ruben] Rochina and [Junior] Hoilett are looking sharp, and [Morten Gamst] Pedersen is playing well from central midfield. They can surprise everybody."
Which is exactly what Rovers will do should they add Chelsea's scalp to that of Arsenal.