Villas-Boas feels heat rising fast
Everton 2 Chelsea 0
Roman Abramovich held a crisis meeting with Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas and the first-team squad at the club's training ground yesterday, with fears growing that their season is unravelling.
The players were hauled in, their scheduled day off cancelled immediately after the 2-0 defeat at Goodison Park, which saw Chelsea slip to fifth in the Premier League table.
Abramovich ordered a series of meetings in an attempt to clear the air as he becomes increasingly concerned as to whether Chelsea will finish in the top four this season.
If they don't, they won't qualify for the Champions League for the first time since the Russian billionaire took ownership of the club in 2003.
The pressure has risen dramatically on Villas-Boas, whose position now looks under threat for the first time, following a run of just two victories in 10 league matches and with the vital Champions League tie against Napoli looming, after this weekend's FA Cup fifth-round fixture against Birmingham.
Abramovich has been conspicuous by his presence at Chelsea's training ground over the past week, observing sessions and closely monitoring Villas-Boas' methods and how the players react to him.
The manager has brushed aside any concerns over Abramovich's increased presence -- it is partly to do with the ending of his High Court case with Boris Berezovsky -- and insisted he retains the full support of the owner.
He did, however, acknowledge after this defeat that finishing in the top four is a prerequisite.
"Of course. Of course. Of course," he said. "We need Champions League qualification and that's what we expect.
"The objective is first place but first place is not a real objective any more -- and neither is second. So Champions League qualification is the least you can ask for."
It was solely Abramovich's decision to appoint Villas-Boas, and the cost of releasing him from his contract at Porto and sacking his predecessor Carlo Ancelotti last May has been put at £28m in the club's recently released accounts.
Abramovich has been fully supportive of Villas-Boas in the realisation that changes need to be made at Chelsea and that the club is in a year of transition. If a change is made it will be made reluctantly and only after every avenue is pursued to try and support Villas-Boas.
The Russian will countenance 'only' a top-four finish this season as long as Chelsea show signs of progressing under Villas-Boas and are producing an attacking, exciting style of play;otherwise, he will not hesitate to sack the manager regardless of the cost. The next three weeks will be decisive as Chelsea's Champions League tie with Napoli bookends league matches against Bolton, West Brom and Stoke.
Abramovich will expect Chelsea to win all three as well as progress in the FA Cup and Champions League.
It is understood that some Chelsea players, who have witnessed Abramovich's presence at the club before in such scenarios, believe the manager is now vulnerable.
Villas-Boas loves talking strategy, but there were not too many tactical options left as he sought a response to the fans' anger after this latest defeat.
"Fans have the right to demand from a manager and from the players," he added. "If there are persons who are always right, it is the fans. They have the right to demand.
"Maybe they were expecting a different kind of approach to the game. When we went 2-0 down, the only way we felt we could continue to create problems was to try and bring more striking strength up front and that's why we went for three up front."
The visiting fans let rip twice -- firstly when Michael Essien was replaced by Florent Malouda in the 70th minute. Their discontent was more audible and valid when Juan Mata, the only decent Chelsea player on an abysmal afternoon, was replaced 12 minutes from time. Passionless players, some of whom do not appear to have the legs or desire to change, are undermining Villas-Boas' aspirations.
It is a bit like ordering him to restyle the house without stripping it of the tired old furniture and wallpaper.
Minutes after the final whistle, Villas-Boas was standing at the top of the exhausting, long staircase which leads to the Everton press room as he fended off the inevitable questions about his future.
It was in precisely the same position eight months earlier that Carlo Ancelotti's responses to defeat were cut short by a statement confirming his sacking.
Yet, it is not the ghost of Ancelotti that haunts Villas-Boas, or those of his predecessors. It is that of Jose Mourinho, and his extraordinary legacy, which has given none of his successors enough time to prosper.
Everton, inspired by Steven Pienaar and Landon Donovan, expertly exposed the flaws in Chelsea's unprotected and careless defence.
Pienaar, thriving on his return to Goodison Park, struck after five minutes and Denis Stracqualursi, another loanee who may convince Moyes to make the arrangement permanent, secured victory in the second half.
Donovan, the game's other outstanding contributor, returns to LA Galaxy after next week's FA Cup tie against Blackpool, ensuring a level of frustration to balance the euphoria.
It was a shame for Moyes that Chelsea's ineptitude overshadowed the annual Goodison New Year revival, which suddenly makes European qualification seem possible. (© Daily Telegraph, London)