Sunday 22 October 2017

Villas-Boas now counting on wounded Terry to steady ship

Chelsea 1 Birmingham City 1

Henry Winter

Such is Chelsea's desperate need for leadership that John Terry's wounded knee could be risked against one of the most formidable attacks in Europe, Napoli's scalpel-sharp trident of Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi.

"I will leave it as late as possible and make a decision on him after training in Naples,'' said Andre Villas-Boas, who faces the defining moment of a darkening season tomorrow.

Leadership questions plague Villas-Boas, from his captain's fitness to his choice of the right man to lead the front line. Chelsea's manager last night warned Fernando Torres he was now in a straight fight with Didier Drogba and Romelu Lukaku for the central attacking role.

The key question revolves around the extent of the manager's control of a star chamber of a dressing-room. If Villas-Boas' authority were supreme, photographs of Drogba exhorting the players in the tunnel on Saturday would not be portrayed as a mutineer taking charge, delivering a team-talk.

Drogba's intentions were undoubtedly innocent, simply a conscientious player geeing up team-mates, but the furore highlighted the perception of a febrile atmosphere around Villas-Boas.

Ditto Frank Lampard, who failed to engage in any eye contact with his callow manager when about to come on against Birmingham City. Short of holding up a sign reading, 'I should have been starting ahead of that Raul Meireles', Lampard's body language could not have been cooler towards his manager.

Villas-Boas insists he enjoys the "unconditional" support of the club's owner, Roman Abramovich, but he patently does not have the unconditional, undying backing of his dressing-room. So we go back to the question of leadership. If Abramovich believes Villas-Boas is the man to rejuvenate an ageing squad then the Portuguese must be granted more time.

Abramovich certainly needs to transmit his message of support for a struggling manager to players and supporters. That's leadership. Far more engaging than his prickly public demeanour suggests, the inexperienced Villas-Boas confronts a myriad of problems that would confound even a veteran campaigner.

Still learning his craft, the 34-year-old makes mistakes, notably failing to use Juan Mata closer to Torres and persisting with Meireles and John Obi Mikel. Terry's return could help.

"JT is a great leader, he gives you an extra emotional push,'' Villas-Boas said. "He's a player of great importance." Even if Terry features, the suddenness of Napoli's attacks could catch him out. "They have a strong front three with Hamsik, Cavani and Lavezzi.

"Cavani is an amazing player. They are a danger. Their strength is in the collective spirit. They have an inner belief in each other. It will be a massive challenge.

"But we are in with a really good chance," added Villas Boas, who said it was important for his team to be "competent" and to face Napoli at Stamford Bridge on March 14 with a win or a draw. "Ideally a scoring draw. Then we can finish the business here. The Champions League is a competition everyone wants to win."

Hunger for European glory is understandable but begs the question that Chelsea are less driven by domestic pursuits. They certainly lacked leaders against Chris Hughton's well-organised, well-motivated Birmingham. Torres, so painfully short of confidence, endured a difficult half and was replaced at the break by Drogba.

Villas-Boas agreed that he could not sacrifice the team to help one player's search for form. "Not the way I put things together, not on a team basis. Everybody is desperate for him to score. Everybody pushes him, praises him in training and it will come with him getting opportunities.

"Torres, Drogba and Lukaku will compete in training to be in the team. There's competition in the striker positions and it will be a battle between the three of them."

Such words will hardly lift Torres' mood. Or Daniel Sturridge's. The England international, who has been talking of his desire to play more through the middle, rescued Chelsea with a real centre-forward's goal, a well-placed header from a right-wing cross from Branislav Ivanovic, one of the few Chelsea players to impress. Fine performances could be found all over Hughton's team. A well-worked set-piece, involving Adam Rooney flicking on Jordon Mutch's corner, saw David Murphy give Birmingham a 20th-minute lead.

After Wade Elliott brought down Ramires two minutes later, Colin Doyle did well to read Mata's intentions and save the penalty. Barring the moment when Sturridge stole a yard and equalised, Birmingham's centre-halves, Pablo Ibanez and particularly Curtis Davies, were exceptional.

There is a unity about Birmingham under Hughton that is absent at Chelsea under Villas-Boas. "There's a fabulous spirit,'' Hughton said.

Managers at Nottingham Forest, Leicester City, Bruges and Leeds United have lost their jobs immediately after being beaten by Hughton's side this season, so Villas-Boas has more reasons to be fearful of the March 6 replay at St Andrew's.

Hughton voiced his support of an under-pressure peer. "You don't get these big jobs without being a very, very good manager,'' Hughton said. "He's trying to instil his own brand on the team and you need time for that.

"Whether you get that time at this type of football club, that's another question but not one for me to answer.'' (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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