Friday 23 March 2018

Chelsea at crisis point with Villas-Boas standing alone

DION FANNING at Stamford Bridge

When the latest crisis point came for Andre Villas-Boas in yesterday's 1-1 draw with Birmingham at Stamford Bridge, he could not summon the man whose support he enjoys.

Roman Abramovich has spent some time at Chelsea's training ground recently but he was powerless when they were losing at home to Birmingham. Instead, AVB had to turn to the men whose backing may be more questionable. The Chelsea players are the ones who will decide the future of Villas-Boas.

At the end of a week in which some players were said to be texting Jose Mourinho, the stories continue to ooze from the dressing room. Chelsea will travel to Naples tomorrow with some of the squad apparently believing that if Napoli win the first leg, Villas-Boas will not be in charge for the return next month. It remains to be seen what they are prepared to do to stop that. John Terry and Ashley Cole are doubtful.

Yesterday ended another long week in the short managerial career of Villas-Boas. The problem is, by failing to beat a Birmingham City side who were more cohesive and committed, Chelsea signalled the beginning of another troublesome seven days. There was little upside to victory yesterday but the consequences of failure were immense.

At the end of every week, the pressure grows. Last week, Villas-Boas admitted that he may have lost some support within the dressing room, but then he had to turn to the players who look most vulnerable to his ideas for support yesterday.

Villas-Boas made some big decisions yesterday. At half-time, he took off Fernando Torres who had as many touches as Petr Cech in the first 45 minutes. Torres, according to a sports psychologist in the Financial Times yesterday, is suffering from 'catastrophic performance anxiety'. He was kept quiet during the first half by Pablo Ibanez. Ibanez spent three years at Atletico Madrid with a player of the same name but he won't have recognised Torres yesterday.

Torres' failure has made things immeasurably worse for Villas-Boas. Not just because of his failure but because he was signed to signal the intention to rebuild. Instead, AVB has no choice but to retain the old guard.

Their presence seems to put him on the defensive. The soundtrack of insecurity accompanies the manager. "You're getting sacked in the morning," has become his theme tune and as he walked into the press room, the TV in the corner was on and the pundits were talking about his job security.

Chelsea's manager then had to deal firstly with the suggestion that Didier Drogba had given a half-time team talk in the tunnel. This was "ridiculous," he said.

He may be completely relaxed about the level of authority enjoyed by his players as he confirmed that John Terry visited the referee to complain about Birmingham time-wasting.

Time-wasting wasn't the problem. Birmingham were excellent. They were everything, in their fashion, that Chelsea were not. Chris Hughton demonstrated again the extraordinary work he's done at the club. Chelsea might not have wanted a replay but Birmingham could have done without it too as they face two games a week until the end of the season.

Hughton said they expected some "unrest" if they held Chelsea but, as ever, he was too diplomatic to say anything more interesting. Chelsea will have more worries about the game. AVB talked about the "anxiety" his side were suffering. In the first half Juan Mata's penalty was brilliantly saved by Colin Doyle. Chelsea were already chasing the game, having allowed the ball to bounce twice in the box, looking on as Birmingham players attempted a series of overhead kicks before David Murphy drove the ball in. Doyle had an excellent half, saving brilliantly from David Luiz and commanding the box but Chelsea lacked conviction.

Mata and Daniel Sturridge -- who headed Chelsea's equaliser -- had energy but the rest were lifeless and at half-time, Torres was taken off. "Well, it was just a decision we had to make. We made that decision. I'm sure he didn't take it lightly," Villas-Boas said.

He refused to comment on suggestions from a representative of Torres -- in the same newspaper article -- that the player would consider seeing a sports psychologist if the club suggested it. This is surely unremarkable in an age when many in sport rightly get all the help they need. This would seem like the option of first, not last resort, but Villas-Boas may not feel like admitting that now, even if a sports psychologist is listed among the staff on the Chelsea website. Getting the best out of Torres may no longer be a feasible option but AVB needs to get the best out of his players on Tuesday night. "It's not really true that our whole season hangs on Naples," he said afterwards, before pointing out that there was also a second leg and the important fight for fourth place which may determine if he keeps his job.

"It's not up to me to decide that but you'd have to ask a question to the right person. It's not about me, it's about the club. I think we are ready for any challenge." As the game petered out yesterday and Chelsea players tried only to play the killer ball, Birmingham's Nathan Redmond missed a chance to win it.

The away fans chanted Mourinho's name; the Chelsea fans hailed Lampard. AVB believes the backing of Abramovich is "unconditional". He is trying to fix the problems ignored by previous managers. He has an ageing squad with few alternatives. He believes those who have battled for years are yesterday's men. Experience tells yesterday's men that at Chelsea they'll always have the final word.

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