Villas-Boas Captaining a Sinking Ship

This was written after Chelsea’s 3-1 defeat to Napoli which looked to cap Andre Villas-Boas’ dismal first season at Stamford Bridge. He was sacked a week later and his club went on to win a double…

Chelsea’s turbulent campaign took a further setback last week with a lamentable 3-1 defeat to Italian side Napoli in the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie. Just like Arsenal have recently, Chelsea are approaching a make-or-break period, which could become a defining moment not just in their season, nor in manager Andre Villas-Boas’ fledgling tenure, but in their history.

The Blues routed a woeful Bolton Wanderers this weekend 3-0, but such a routine victory against the side at the foot of the table will not ease the pressure on the beleaguered Portuguese, described in The Times on Saturday as a ‘dead man walking’, which in no way exaggerates the situation that has enveloped around him.

With their title challenge long since over, Chelsea face an arduous battle with Arsenal, Liverpool and even Newcastle United to claim the last remaining Champions League qualification spot for next season, yet victory against Bolton was their first in 4 league games. They face an FA Cup 5th round replay at Birmingham City next week before the return leg against Napoli on March 14th.

Though the Blues require just a 2-0 victory at Stamford Bridge to progress, the likelihood of their brittle defence denying the vibrant Neapolitans is remote. A central defensive pairing of Gary Cahill and the erroneous David Luiz, protected by a midfield duo of Raul Meireles and Ramires, were torn asunder by Napoli’s exhilarating forward line of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Marek Hamsik and Edison Cavani.

Though Villas-Boas insists that his team selection was correct, to leave the experience and quality of Michael Essien and Frank Lampard on the bench was a gamble that, with hindsight, spectacularly backfired. Neither Meireles nor Ramires are holding midfielders, whilst David Luiz has consistently shown himself to be oblivious to the fine art of defending.

The jury remains out on Gary Cahill, drafted in during the January transfer window yet thrust headlong into this intimidating gauntlet as a result of injury to their talismanic leader John Terry.

Compare the backbone of the dominant Chelsea under Jose Mourinho, between 2004-7, to that of the 2012 vintage and it goes some way to explaining this dramatic deterioration. Chelsea have significantly downgraded from Claude Makelele and Ricardo Carvalho to John Obi Mikel and David Luiz, whilst the inspiration of that era, Terry, Essien, Lampard and Didier Drogba have become as much the problem as the solution.

The problems at Chelsea run far deeper than a set of inconsistent results and a downgrade in talent of the playing staff, but into the very fabric of how this dysfunctional football club is run.

Villas-Boas cuts a desolate and isolated figure at Stamford Bridge amidst an alienated fan base and a dissenting dressing room, which has been indulged beyond reason during the Abramovich era, and now holds all the power in West London. Dissatisfaction within the upper echelons of the playing squad at the managerial methods of Mourinho, Avram Grant and Luis-Felipe Scolari was instrumental in their dismissals.

The core of this Chelsea side, including Terry, Lampard, Ashley Cole and Didier Drogba, has been led to believe for years that they were being let down by managerial ineptitude and it now seems that the writing is on the wall for them should they fail to oust AVB. Each player is approaching the twilight of their careers and they do not share their manager’s vision for overhauling an ageing squad which has grown stale.

Their open revolt against the latest to appear on the managerial conveyor belt illustrates the dysfunctionality of a disharmonious club. This is to say nothing of the £50 million sized problem up front, which again shows how Abramovich’s short-sightedness has catapulted the club into ignominy and mediocrity.

Of course, Fernando Torres is not the first player the Russian oligarch has thrust upon a manager. The £30 million outlay on Andriy Shevchenko in 2006 was expected to ignite an assault on European conquest but eventuated in an unmitigated disaster.

Two seasons without a trophy for Chelsea was inconceivable in the days of Jose Mourinho; it has now become not just a distinct possibility, but an overwhelming probability. How Roman Abramovich must yearn for those days of functional clinicality under the current Real Madrid coach, who, armed with a colossal war chest invested in a squad that transformed Chelsea into conquerors of English football.

But Abramovich’s lust for short-term glory has resulted in a knee-jerk reactionary administration, fuelling the unholy mess that now exists at Stamford Bridge, in which the elite of the playing staff are untouchable. AVB has become an unfortunate stooge amidst this debacle; how he must rue the decision to swap Portugal for England.

There is little doubt that, at just 33 when offered the job, Villas-Boas took a considerable gamble that now shows little signs of paying off. To entrust this transitory stage in Chelsea’s history to an inexperienced, albeit prodigious talent, was not simply risky, but illogical, and as such he looks increasingly out of his depth.

The manager himself should have declined the offer and built a five year legacy at FC Porto, which he was well on his way to achieving after claiming a treble there last season, before even considering overtures from any of European football’s illustrious elite. Yet Villas-Boas has taken on this opportunity too early, and as Chelsea’s fortunes plummet so does his credibility and reputation.

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