Friday 20 October 2017

West Brom give Villas-Boas much to ponder

Chelsea have the victory to kick-start their campaign, but Andre Villas-Boas will not let such narrow success cloud his judgment over the size of the task he has taken on. There was relief to be had in a first competitive win squeezed from this occasion courtesy of Florent Malouda's late goal, but too much of this felt all too familiar. This team's transformation remains a work in progress.

Both Stoke City last week and West Bromwich Albion here have offered stern tests of the Londoners, and Villas-Boas must learn quickly from the difficulties his charges have experienced. The home side enjoyed periods of dominance here, but also passages of the sloppiness which so undermined them last term. Malouda's crisp winner, dispatched from Jose Bosingwa's cross, was reward for an improved second half display but much of the opening period had been spluttering. The manager, all manic anxiety on the touchline before punching the air at the end, will have recognised the deficiencies.

The script had suggested this would amount to a glorious welcome back to this arena for Villas-Boas and his management team, though the Premier League is still capable of defying presumed logic.

The jolt had come early, Ramires' sloppy pass matched only by Alex's lazy control in the centre which allowed Shane Long, a blur of energy, to steal possession. The striker deserved praise for his sense of anticipation, but the strength with which he held off the lumbering Alex was just as impressive, his finish smartly taken beyond the exposed Henrique Hilario.

Villas-Boas' frustration rather welled thereafter, his jacket cast aside a little after the quarter-hour mark as he prowled his technical area issuing instructions.

There was relief to be had that Long, liberated superbly by Paul Scharner, misplaced a square ball having sprinted into the space beyond Ashley Cole with Somen Tchoyi free beyond the centre-halves on the edge of the six-yard box.

Yet even the flurry of chances created by the hosts in the build-up to the interval failed to choke the boos which bellowed at the half-time whistle.

It had taken until four minutes before the interval for Ben Foster to be tested, Cole's swerving effort pushed round the post. The goalkeeper did well to hold Alex's free-kick soon afterwards, the venom rather checked by Mikel John Obi's touch, but too much of Chelsea's play had been stodgy in the build-up and toothless up top.

Juan Mata, the £23.5m Spain international winger who is on the verge of completing his move from Valencia, might have offered the width and pace that is so needed. The creative flair in the centre may take longer to recruit with Spurs understandably reluctant to relinquish Luka Modric. But these are not new issues for Chelsea, even if they are unfamiliar for Villas-Boas. This team suffered similar exasperation at times last term.

Yet they still boast pedigree up front. Such are the forward options at Villas-Boas' disposal that Didier Drogba had begun on the bench here with Romelu Lukaku in the stands. Nicolas Anelka, cutting in from the flank, offered much needed bite just as the anxiety was threatening to escalate early in the second period, his scuffed shot flicking from Jonas Olsson to find the corner.

Parity pepped confidence, the upbeat tempo that had been so lacking was suddenly injected into the home side's approach. Foster, somehow, denied Anelka an immediate second with Steven Reid flinging himself to block Florent Malouda's follow-up.

This Albion side had been swept aside 6-0 in the corresponding fixture a year ago, and Chelsea's rally had them momentarily flustered. But there is a greater depth of quality to their set-up now, and more resilience to admire even if they were to be undone near the final whistle.

Theirs had been a daunting start, following up defeat to Manchester United at the Hawthorns with this trip to Stamford Bridge, but, even in defeat, they will feel stronger for their performances.

Observer

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