Benitez waiting in the wings
Former Liverpool boss in line for Chelsea’s SOS call but Abramovich camp still divided over Villas-Boas’ future
Andre Villas-Boas' future remained on a knife-edge last night, with indications that Roman Abramovich's camp is split as to whether he should be sacked as Chelsea manager now or remain in charge until the return leg of the Champions League tie against Napoli.
Rafael Benitez is in pole position to replace Villas-Boas if he is dismissed, but only on a short-term deal until the end of the season. He will have a specific remit to gain fourth place in the Premier League and qualify for next season's Champions League, and draw the best out of the misfiring Fernando Torres.
It is understood that Abramovich is inclined to make a change sooner rather than later, but sources close to him are lobbying for a reprieve for Villas-Boas -- at least for the next few weeks and possibly until the end of the season.
There is an acceptance that not all of Chelsea's problems can be blamed on the manager and that he has not enjoyed sufficient support from either the boardroom or dressing-room. Set against that, however, is a growing concern that a core of players at the club are simply struggling to work with him.
A group of senior players know they are on their way out of Chelsea and that situation has not been helped by the fact that several are coming to the end of their contracts. On Tuesday, Frank Lampard made Villas-Boas aware of his annoyance at being left out of the starting line-up. Ashley Cole was also left out and although he did not air any complaint, he has confronted the manager in the past. It is understood that the defender is also frustrated.
The complaints of senior players do not concern Abramovich, but the gradual sense that the club's season is slipping away does. One of the reasons he is attracted to the idea of employing Benitez is his belief that the Spaniard will discipline the players and will not be afraid to upset egos -- although he is not deemed a long-term option.
Abramovich is likely to reassess in the summer, raising the likelihood of an approach for Pep Guardiola, who is yet to sign a new contract at Barcelona, or Jose Mourinho, who has already indicated a willingness to return to the Premier League.
Relations between him and Abramovich have improved dramatically in the past year with the Chelsea owner having previously told friends he would never accept Mourinho back.
The timing of any change -- should it be made -- is now the focus for debate at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea have a crowded schedule to contend with that includes three Premier League games -- against Bolton, West Bromwich Albion and Stoke -- and an FA Cup replay at Birmingham before the return leg against Napoli on March 14.
If Villas-Boas is sacked it would be viewed by many as a harsh decision given that many at Chelsea accept that he is a fine young coach. The fear remains that if he does leave he will be snapped up by one of Europe's leading clubs and go on to prove he is a world-class manager.
He has also had to deal with a number of problems and slices of bad luck, not least the loss of John Terry, who underwent surgery yesterday to explore the extent of a knee injury. The captain could miss up to eight weeks as he recovers from the bone bruising he suffered in colliding with a post during an FA Cup tie last month.
Yesterday defender Branislav Ivanovic called for an end to some of the dressing-room tension and said it was time for the players to get behind the club.
"These things always happen when you are losing. They come out," he said of the sense of unease. "Everybody has to still believe, try to do the right things. I don't know what the manager is saying. But I think this is more about Chelsea; more important than the relationship between managers and players.
"Chelsea has to be first for everybody, first for everyone to get a result. The manager who decides who plays is doing his job. We have to use every minute on the field when we get the chance. Everyone has to think like that and try to make this position better."
Ivanovic said he was convinced that Villas-Boas would remain in place. "I can say he will stay," he said. "Of course it is important we stay together because our team, our squad is not doing how people expect. This is the hardest moment during my four years here.
"We haven't won a lot of games and the confidence is not in the best way. But we must work hard and try to do things well, keep going and be positive." (© Daily Telegraph, London)