Monday 23 October 2017

Villas-Boas nears endgame

Bolton win only gives Blues boss a stay of execution, writes Dion Fanning

Given some of the stories leaking from the Chelsea dressing-room, Andre Villas-Boas's first achievement yesterday was when he named a full 11 and seven subs for the game against Bolton Wanderers.

One Chelsea player told a friend last week he had never known a dressing room so united in opposition to a manager.

Victory yesterday is unlikely to alter the future for the manager, even if he makes it until next weekend.

The post-match press conference was again dominated by the familiar themes. Villas-Boas took exception to a question asking if Abramovich had picked the side yesterday. "I got a call this morning to play them," he joked. The Chelsea press officer then clarified that this was a joke.

Abramovich must quickly decide if he will gamble on the manager turning the tie against Napoli around in two weeks' time or let somebody else have a go. At Chelsea, everybody gets their turn.

Chelsea's players do not believe that they are just resisting the attempts of a manager to rebuild the team. They have rationalised their opposition to Villas-Boas: they will accept rebuilding but they don't believe he is the man to do it. Unfortunately, AVB has done nothing to disprove their theory.

He avoided more trouble by selecting Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard yesterday. AVB had done the impossible and made Cole a folk hero. His return was cheered yesterday but there was a louder roar when Lampard's name was read out.

Villas-Boas has, at times, bravely resisted the urge to fall back on the transition defence, but if his footballing philosophy has become more pragmatic, he has been tempted to suggest that now he needs time, that a change of manager would only make things worse.

For the time being, there is no discernible philosophy except the need to win. The first half yesterday was soul-crushingly boring, which made Bolton happy. "There's no getting away from the fact that if elite clubs aren't winning trophies, that's a story," Owen Coyle said as he explained how they wanted to add to Chelsea's frustrations.

The second half was different. David Luiz scored a beautiful opener, curling the ball in from 20 yards before Didier Drogba headed in a second. With 12 minutes left, Lampard tapped in a sweet Mata cross to secure the points which moved Chelsea into the top four.

Abramovich was looking on from his box and seemed underwhelmed by the goals. The victory might have complicated things slightly for him but it's not as much of a complication as securing a successor to Villas-Boas.

Tuesday's defeat to Napoli has probably made the outcome irreversible. The tie is retrievable but if Chelsea can come to an agreement with Rafael Benitez about the length of his contract, he is the man who will be given the chance to do that, not Villas-Boas.

Benitez is eager to work at Chelsea but wants a contract that lasts beyond the summer, while Chelsea want to consider their options at that point. Abramovich has his heart set on Pep Guardiola.

He has set his heart on many things over the years, most fanatically the Champions League, and the impending failure in that competition will have more of a bearing on Villas-Boas's future than a home win against Bolton Wanderers.

It is in AVB's interest to talk these things up and to stress also the rebuilding process he has embarked on.

"The most important thing is to build from this day onwards, solve the FA Cup tie and solve the Champions League tie," AVB said later. "It was an important day."

But what happened in Naples last week was more important and more than just the resistance from players to his methods. They had been encouraged to think they can revolt. Within that climate, the players know their resistance will not be suppressed. They believe their doubts are greater than just self-interest.

AVB will probably need to demonstrate his abilities in another place. His reasonableness has no place in the Chelsea dressing-room where everyone is tested. He arrived with his new ideas, which, for all his phenomenal success in one season at Porto, had the sense of a college boy arriving fresh from campus. If AVB was Guy Pearce in La Confidential, it turns out that there's more than one Bud White in the Chelsea dressing room.

John Terry wrote in his programme notes yesterday of the restorative power of victory: "I have full confidence in the team and the manager to get the results we need in the coming weeks." A sceptic might note he didn't say which manager.

Benitez may not be the man to put his arm around the players, but there are enough players who testify to his excellence as a coach to make that less important. He also has the unreasonableness necessary to manage at the top clubs.

Before yesterday's game, AVB said there would be more pain ahead for Chelsea. Victory yesterday may have delayed the moment when he, and not the club he was hired to transform, feels the pain.

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