|Napoli: Another headache for AVB.|
However, the fairy tale move has not yet panned out. Struggling in the league, knocked out of the Carling Cup, held to a fifth-round FA Cup replay by Birmingham City, and comprehensively defeated in the first round of their Champions League last sixteen tie with Napoli, Villas-Boas is widely tipped as the next Premier League manager to leave his post, winning only two of the last eight games.
The recent run of bad results, including the throwing away of a 3-0 lead at home to Manchester United, is the reoccurrence of his side’s December form, a month in which they picked up nine of the possible eighteen points available, ending the yuletide in fifth place. The first time they have finished a calendar year outside the top four since 2001.
Villas-Boas’ team selection and transfer policy have indicated one thing since his arrival almost nine months ago; he is looking to usher in a new era at Stamford Bridge. The side selected to face Napoli last Tuesday was absent of players who have previously been pivotal to Chelsea success. Captain John Terry was sidelined through default, but the dropping of Lampard, Essien, Mikel, Kalou, and Cole was very much by design. As was the January sale of Nicolas Anelka.
Whilst Salamon Kalou, 26, and John Obi Mikel, 24, still have time on their side. The average age of Terry, Lampard, Essien and the departed Anelka, is a grand total of 31- the nine signings since his arrival have an average age of a decade younger, the eldest being 28 year old Raul Meireles.
Similarly to his north London rival Wenger, Villas-Boas’ has tied his hopes to youth. The folly of which has been all too evident in crucial games so far this season.
Senior players within the squad are rumoured to be circling the manager, and regular visits from Abramovich to the training ground signal a collapse of confidence from the owner. As each day passes, further revelations appear to surface surrounding the relationship between Villas-Boas’ and his employer. Most recently The Telegraph detailed how the former Porto boss was asked to explain his team selection versus Napoli to Abramovich via technical director Michael Emenalo. The questioning of the manager reiterates the owner’s worries, whilst the lack of direct communication appears to detail a strained relationship.
Villas-Boas is not the first manager to become embroiled in an internal battle at Chelsea. Senior players have been warranted with encouraging the expulsion of the club’s managers before- Avram Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari both suffered at the hands of Drogba, Lampard and Terry during the Abramovich reign. The owner continues to take the opinion of his stars most seriously.
However, one thing that the owner takes more seriously than the views of his players is the Champions League, the one trophy which has eluded him since he bought the club for £140m in 2003. If Villas-Boas can make it to the return tie at Stamford Bridge, his side play Bolton, West Brom, and Stoke in the league, as well as the FA Cup replay with Birmingham City, before facing Napoli once again, he will have the opportunity of turning the tie and indeed his side’s season around. A loss before the second-leg on March 14th and he may not be so lucky.
Former Valencia and Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez is rumoured to be in line to replace Villas-Boas should his side suffer a defeat in the coming weeks. The Spaniard’s experience is seen as the ideal antidote to AVB’s alleged naivety and many believe Benitez to be the man to reignite the faltering Fernando Torres. The striker has found himself dropped in recent weeks following a period of backing from the manager and Abramovich is keen to see a return on the £50m paid for the forward prior to Villas-Boas’ arrival.
Unlike the signing of Torres, believed to be a direct action of the owner rather than former manager Carlo Ancelotti, the inclusion of Juan Mata and Gary Cahill by AVB to the squad has been widely lauded by fans. The £20m paid for Romelu Lukaku however has been the subject of increasing criticism- like Romeu, De Bruyne, Courtois and Bamford- the manager believes the fees will be justified in years to come.
If Villas-Boas is to oversee the growth of such players he must hope that those who take to the field in the coming weeks, whether old or new, can come together and provide the results necessary to climb back in to the top four and progress in both the FA Cup and Champions League. If they do not Abramovich will surely sack his sixth manager in nine years.