Under-fire manager Andre Villas-Boas appeals to owner Roman Abramovic for public support
WHEN André Villas-Boas gazes out from the Chelsea team hotel this morning and sees the impressive Castel del’Ovo on the Bay of Naples, he might privately remark that even the strongest fortifications sometimes need reinforcement.
Inevitably his press conference ahead of tonight’s Champions League tie against Napoli was dominated by questions over his future.
Villas-Boas was bold and consistent — “I have the full confidence of the owner, I am here to do my job. And my job is for this year and the next two years,” he stated. But there was also, finally, something else. A demand for help?
As Villas-Boas spoke he stared into the middle distance. Maybe he knew that at the back of the media room, in the bowels of the richly atmospheric Stadio San Paolo, an arena that dripped with a sense of occasion and steady rain, stood Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck and chief executive Ron Gourlay, both interested observers in what the young manager uttered
And maybe, from Villas-Boas, there was a message for them and for owner Roman Abramovich as he spoke about the project he has undertaken to change the “culture” at Chelsea.
“These words would be more valuable coming from the top to you guys, I know,” Villas-Boas added to his inquisitors.
“I cannot keep saying them, but as the voice of the club, I will continue to perpetuate this message because this is what we believe in.”
After last week laughing off any notion of wanting a vote of confidence — declaring that he knew he would be finished at Chelsea if one was delivered — this could have been a directive to the board and to Abramovich to help end this perpetual sense that he is careering towards an inevitable sacking.
The official message is that it is business as usual at Chelsea, that everyone working together, but there are plenty of indications that behind the scenes, things are not quite so harmonious and a new managerial search may already be under way.
The ready availability of former Liverpool manager Rafael Benítez — who has expressed interest in the Chelsea job in the past — has not gone unnoticed. Could he be brought in as a firefighter until the end of the season should Chelsea decide to sack Villas-Boas?
Unofficially it is understood that Abramovich, who is not expected to be present tonight, is angry and frustrated with Chelsea’s poor form.
An eighth new man in the Abramovich period and Chelsea would be in danger of becoming a laughing stock, especially as Villas-Boas’s stock remains high around Europe.
Chelsea have made a bold move in appointing him and need to stick by him. Villas-Boas insisted he will remain in place. Win, lose or draw and the Portuguese maintained that he, and his three-year project to rebuild Chelsea, will remain in place.
Villas-Boas rejected a question that he was on the brink of dismissal. “There’s an obvious tendency for that, in the past, to happen,” he explained.
“But from the messages you’ve received from the club and the board in the recent past, there’s a clear indication that there’s a change in the way we approach the projects for the future.
We have great belief in what we will do next year, setting up a team to bring us the biggest amount of trophies we can have.
“But that doesn’t take away from the responsibilities for this year. The speculation is normal given the cultural past of this football club, but you have to understand that there’s a different perspective now.
“You have to understand that this club, from 2004 up to now, has made a dramatic change for the best in terms of their past. It’s the richest part of Chelsea’s history, full of trophies and success, and you want to perpetuate that into the future.
"To do that, you have to sometimes make changes because you cannot sustain the same habits that you had in 2004. That was the project [ we accepted].”
It has been Villas-Boas’s mantra throughout his time in charge but results, just two wins in the last 10 Premier League games, no victories in five and an eroding of performances has led to him being doubted by even his staunchest supporters.
A project is one thing but Chelsea also demand immediate results. It was interesting to hear Villas-Boas accept that this is a year of transition — a statement he previously balked at.
“I’m really confident about next year,” he said. “We have a three-year project to change not only the team, but the culture and structure of the club.
"There’s a lot we needed to do, so that’s why I’m excited about the future. Having said that, we have to build a team to win trophies from the start.”
There is a mandate for change and Villas-Boas should be applauded for his willingness to take on what has been traditionally been the most opinionated dressing room in England, but he needs to get through this tie against a Napoli team that he would have wanted to avoid.
“Tomorrow does not define anything,” was his response to that. And yet there is a sense that it could.