Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas steps back into Roman Abramovich's Chelsea lair
Champions League place at stake and Spurs manager's resentment of Chelsea lingers
When he walks into Stamford Bridge this evening, Andre Villas-Boas could be forgiven for having one of those paranoid moments that the imagined Brian Clough character in David Peace's The Damned United has at Elland Road. The belief that conspiracy lurks around every corner of every corridor and that the greetings of his former players and staff are not what they seem.
But then this is Chelsea in 2013, 10 years into the Roman Abramovich project, and Villas-Boas would probably not be that far away from the truth.
The return of the last manager to embark on an Abramovich project – let's face it, his two successors have been nothing more than stopgaps – is an interesting moment in Chelsea's recent history. They are favourites to win the game, secure a Champions League place next season and put the mockers on their hated rivals for another year. But then, there have been more than enough twists in the tale this season to imagine a first Spurs win at Stamford Bridge since 1990.
Of all the managers given their marching orders by Abramovich, you get the impression that Villas-Boas was the one he least wanted to sack. And yet of all those who have gone from Chelsea, none has been quite so openly critical of him as Villas-Boas, who said the Russian had "quit" on him last summer and followed that up by saying that the current Chelsea team had no discernible style.
Had it not been for the small matter of Roberto Di Matteo winning the Champions League in May, Villas-Boas could have had a much stronger case. He was sacked with the team fifth and three points off the Champions League places. They finished the season sixth and five points off the Champions League places but qualified as the defending champions.
"The situation we were in, dictates for a manager to lose his job, it is understandable," Villas-Boas said of his Chelsea experience. "It has happened in various clubs for the same reasons and with the same effects – which is immediate success after. It is nothing new in football, and is something which unfortunately works. In moments of maximum difficulty you either believe in what you are doing or you don't. At that time the club had to make a decision which was successful for them."
At times it seems that he might have come to terms with the grievous blow that Chelsea dealt his meteoric coaching career. At other times, you recognise that a man with such deeply held convictions about football can never forgive a club who, in his view, threw him overboard in a panic.
There is an intensity to Villas-Boas that counters his relative youth for the profession he is in. He resents the negative characterisation of himself as an obsessive who spent such long hours at the Chelsea training ground that he had a bed installed and would spend nights there. He has a passion for cars and motorbikes and drives a sporty little coupé that makes you think he, as the father of two young children, must also have something more practical parked on the drive at home.
Yet in an interview with a newspaper last week he discussed the difficulty of switching off from his daily life as a manager. "I can be in bed and a thought will start to haunt me – something I need to do, a conversation I need to have."
Villas-Boas the individual, the boy with an aristocratic background and a name almost as long as a team sheet – Dom Luis Andre de Pina Cabral e Villas-Boas – is an interesting man. But he gives up only fragments of his other life. If you want to talk, then he will talk football in that very serious, very stylised way of his. He is still bruised by the Chelsea experience.
What seems still to confuse him the most about his nine months at Chelsea is not only that his methods failed, but that after his departure the team went on to capture the greatest prize in the club's history – the European Cup – in the space of three months.
Asked whether he thought Chelsea had evolved since his departure he replied it was "very hard to say.
"They've won the biggest competition in European football so, in the end, they have won every single trophy that they've wanted in the last 10 years and they have the most amazing record of trophies, plus the possibility of winning the Europa League, this season. So if their approach has brought them so much success, it's very hard to say anything."
For whatever reason, perhaps that they won the Champions League, Villas-Boas is unwilling to name the Chelsea players he felt let him down although he more or less accepted that Frank Lampard had not supported him. By the same token he also admits that the Chelsea experience changed him. "It's an interesting question. Probably it made me a better manager. I agree."
At Spurs, the business plan changes according to whether they secure Champions League football or not – in which case Daniel Levy, the chairman, will have to adapt his summer recruitment policy accordingly. There is also the added pressure of the former manager, Harry Redknapp, finishing fourth last season and still being sacked.
On the question of Levy's expectations, Villas-Boas seemed a great deal more relaxed when it was put to him that the club were "desperate" to qualify for the competition. "He is saying nothing to me. He is not so desperate, it is something that is part of where he wants to be in the future. Sometimes you achieve it, sometimes you don't. The focus is on trying to achieve it every single season."
It is already clear that there is a mutual respect with Rafa Benitez, one no doubt strengthened by the shared experience of having worked for one of the most difficult clubs in the world. Certainly for Abramovich the match represents something of a first, two of his managers on the same touchline – one whom he sacked, and the other whose date of departure he gave the day he took over.
But if you think tonight is exciting, wait until Spurs visit Chelsea next season, when, if things turn out as expected, the man in the home dugout will be Villas-Boas's former mentor, now estranged, Jose Mourinho. That is one awkward handshake in prospect. Villas-Boas will no doubt take it all in his stride.
AVB: Szczesny just passing through
Andre Villas-Boas has hit back at the claim by Wojciech Szczesny that Tottenham do not "have the quality" to finish in the top four by suggesting that the Arsenal goalkeeper was just passing through the club.
"It would be a little more tolerable if it had come from a genuine Arsenal fan," Villas-Boas said. "But it is coming from a player who is probably only passing by to another club. Does he mean exactly those words from the heart? He doesn't, for sure. I wouldn't say an Arsenal fan that has just arrived is entitled to have so much hatred towards Tottenham, like he seems to have."
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