Andre Villas-Boas, Chelsea's fifth manager in three years, crosses the start line this afternoon with his first great conundrum almost certainly having been solved by the Italian defender who caused Fernando Torres to suffer concussion in last Wednesday's victory over Spain.
It was as undeniable in pre-season friendlies as in the second half of last season that Didier Drogba, the £50m man's rival for the one central striker's position at Stoke today, proved much the more threatening presence and also that they can play together only in brief periods of all-out attacking late in a game. Even the club captain John Terry publicly acknowledged last week: "If it's 4-3-3, that proves difficult for them both to play."
It was surprising on medical grounds alone to hear that Torres was still in contention for a place only four days after his injury, given that on Thursday "he couldn't remember a couple of things" – like when he last scored a goal, it was unkindly suggested. Even if fully recovered, the other football argument as well as his form would be that Stoke City, with their emphasis on rugged defenders, direct play and set pieces, are a team for Drogba more than Torres.
The problem will recur, however much the new manager tries to deflect it. "Too early to start pretending it's a big, big drama," he insisted after his first public match, at Portsmouth four weeks ago. A month on, the drama is increasing, not diminishing. "It became a complex media obsession," Villas-Boas said of the time it took (732 minutes) for Torres to register his one goal in 18 games last season. "A small problem became a big problem and then an even bigger problem. I don't think it is [one] because his past speaks for itself." Confidence, he continues to insist, is the answer, gained "by training, by putting the ball in the back of the net in training and in games".
Six pre-season matches offered abundant opportunity to deliver goals and therefore confidence; Chelsea scored 15 times in those games, of which Torres's contribution was a single strike. "Do you think he has run dry?" Villas-Boas asked, rhetorically, at the same time as claiming that strikers should not be judged by goals alone. "Particularly in the Premier League when you play with two up front, you know that one is a feeder of the other and maybe the other one ends up with better numbers, but how many assists from this guy? It can happen and I'm not worried about it.
"I'm just worried that the striker, whoever plays, feeds my other people or scores himself. You had Lamps [Frank Lampard] in the first year I was here [as Jose Mourinho's assistant in 2004-05] scoring 25 goals or whatever it was. The only thing I could never tolerate is an individual looking for individual objectives. Collective objectives go above everything else. I think 'this guy needs confidence by getting the ball in the back of the net'. In games it's more difficult, it comes with time but it will happen."
Yet even if assists rather than goals are considered, Drogba is again way ahead of his rival. His 16 in the League last season were second only to Manchester United's Nani, and more than double Torres's seven. If the latter is to prove worth even half of that frankly ridiculous millstone of a fee, it will be as predator rather than provider.
The one positive that might be said to have come out of his move last January was to shake Drogba out of any complacency, just as the arrival of another new manager has incentivised fellow senior citizens such as John Terry, Lampard and Ashley Cole.
At the same time there is evidence that the club are beginning a desired process of youthful invigoration. Daniel Sturridge, one of the few successes in the England Under-21s' European Championship finals, would have had a strong claim to start on the right of the attack today but for a suspension; David Luiz, who made so much more of an impression than Torres, but is also unavailable, is only 24; Oriol Romeu, the midfielder signed from Barcelona, and Romelu Lukalu are teenagers; and Villas-Boas, while reluctant to single out individuals, has high praise for the potential of the young midfielder Josh McEachran.
"He can express himself in the most beautiful way with quality passing and the vision that he has. The knowledge he has of the game at this age is something quite extraordinary. When you see him physically, you'd say he will never make it in the Premier League but it's a lie. Josh's brain thinks one step ahead of the others. We just need to continue to get the best out of him." Yet he admits that Chelsea may keep trying for a proven midfielder and winger, Luka Modric clearly being the one they desire most.
Stoke may have put the frighteners on a number of teams in their three years in the Premier League but Chelsea are not among them, having won five of out six meetings (plus an FA Cup tie) and drawn the other, conceding three goals. Tony Pulis has again left it later than he would have liked to strengthen his squad, recruiting only Jonathan Woodgate and Matthew Upson on free transfers. That gives him an abundance of central defenders but he needs a striker to improve on Kenwyne Jones's nine League goals if they are to better a commendable record of finishing 12th, 11th and 13th. Jonathan Walters, signed from Ipswich, may or may not be that man.
When Villas-Boas says it is "good to have this challenge on the first day", perhaps he means it is good to get it over with. There will be no shortage of others waiting for him at this most demanding of clubs.
Stoke City v Chelsea is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pm
Torres v Drogba
Didier Drogba/Fernando Torres: Premier League
202 Appearances 116 (14)
95 Goals 66 (1)
54 Assists 18 (7)
37 Yellow cards 18 (1)
1 Red cards 0
Torres' Chelsea statistics in bracketsReuse content