Villas-Boas vindicated after wielding axe on fading icon Lampard
Sometimes a manager hands out a team-sheet and it comes back to him as a P45. Not this time.
Instant ridicule was the spectre for Andre Villas-Boas as he demoted a Chelsea legend with 20 Champions League goals to the bench for this end-game against Valencia.
Frank Lampard was surplus to requirements for the kind of match he lives for. As Europe's lights fell on Ramires, Raul Meireles and Oriol Romeu in Chelsea's midfield, Lampard assumed the role of fading icon, in a seat behind the technical area where Villas-Boas exudes such youthful tension.
Dropped by a manager only one year older than him, Lampard became a stress-test for the rebuilding work. As gambles go, it was not in the same league as Ruud Gullit leaving out Newcastle's Alan Shearer for a North-East derby, but it was still a brutal declaration of intent.
Steadily we have seen Villas-Boas identify players who are amenable to change. Daniel Sturridge, Meireles, Romeu and Juan Mata are in the vanguard of those who would escape the charge of being stuck in ancient ways. That older group have adhered to the same system and methods for the past eight years and have the medals to support their faith in the good old days.
Battle commenced the day Villas-Boas took the job, but only now are we seeing the full schism between Chelsea's past and future. Lampard -- and Fernando Torres, who also warmed the bench -- have been the biggest casualties, along with Nicolas Anelka and Alex, both forced to train separately after submitting transfer requests.
Within 22 minutes Villas-Boas could smell the sweet scent of vindication. Drogba had bought time for himself in Valencia's penalty box before sweeping in the opening goal with his left boot, on three minutes, before Ramires ghosted down the same channel to double Chelsea's lead.
In between, Valencia's response was stinging, as Jordi Alba struck a post and David Albelda stretched Petr Cech with a long-range drive. Chelsea's swanky 4-3-3 fell back to become 4-5-1 before Ramires filled in for Lampard with a vital goal from midfield.
Meireles knew his big chance had come. He motored about the pitch from defensive positions to a marauding role behind Drogba, all the while trying to impress Villas-Boas. Meireles certainly covers the ground quicker than Lampard, who tends to chug these days, but there are many virtues besides speed, such as those 20 goals in 81 Champions League appearances.
In this Chelsea squad only Drogba had scored more in Europe's elite competition.
These were his 35th and 36th in 69 outings: a stellar ratio for a striker whose agent said recently would leave to join "whoever will pay him the most money".
That stark warning will not trouble Chelsea, who offered him a new 12-month deal that was too short for his liking. No one can ever be sure which Drogba will show up, but here the old barnstormer took to the field.
Winning the selectorial struggle with Torres must have helped.
In the middle of a multi-billion pound legal wrangle with Boris Berezovsky in the London courts, Roman Abramovich, Chelsea's owner, will be less inclined to fret about the £50m he spent on Torres, and so less likely to call Villas-Boas and order him to write 'El Nino' on the team-sheet. This was another break for the manager, at a time of circular speculation about his future, or his lack of one.
A notable contrarian, Drogba claimed after the 3-0 win at Newcastle that the old Chelsea were back. The problem here is that nobody wants the old Chelsea back, except a few senior players who cherished the certainties of strength and power.
Maybe we should cut them some slack. They know -- and we can see -- that Chelsea lack the critical mass of players necessary to achieve an immediate transformation. Sturridge was paraded alongside Villas-Boas at the pre-match press conference and said all the right things. Yet twice in the game he failed to see team-mates in more promising positions and so squandered good opportunities. In the second instance he took a verbal blast from Mata.
Sixty-four minutes had passed before Lampard rose from his exile to warm-up and, by then, Mikel had already replaced Ramires to help Chelsea protect their lead. In his technical area Villas-Boas could scent the kind of victory managers look back on as moments of salvation and consolidation.
A win would buy him time to push through his changes and lobby Abramovich for more players from the Mata creativity mould. It would keep Chelsea in the competition Abramovich most wants to win. That outcome looked a certainty when Drogba barged his way through on goal after 72 minutes only to drag his finish wide and was placed beyond doubt when he slipped the ball past Diego Alves in the Valencia goal a minute later.
Stamford Bridge rocked when Drogba took his leave to be replaced by Torres, but still there was no place for Lampard, who had displayed his irritation at being taken off at Newcastle.
A bleak night for him was a blissful one for Drogba and Villas-Boas: the old and the new in harness. (© Daily Telegraph, London)