Like Villas-Boas, Chelsea must go on the defensive to preserve their Champions League place
However animated Andre Villas-Boas might have been when his side scored their second goal at Newcastle on Saturday, Chelsea’s manager was keeping such emotions in check on Monday night.
He was candid enough in response to certain questions. Particularly when it came to the isolation of Nicolas Anelka and Alex and whether that result at St James’ Park represented a pivotal moment in Chelsea’s season.
‘We would not be arrogant enough to think that,’ he said. ‘Our results have not been impressive and we need to start performing with more consistency before we can believe we are back on track.’
On the defensive: Andre Villas-Boas was giving little away prior to Chelsea”s crunch Champions League clash
But he was also more measured, defensive even; as defensive as his side need to be against Valencia this evening and defensive with regard to what started to feel like the elephant in the room at Stamford Bridge. Basically, what happens should Chelsea fail to progress beyond the first stage of the Champions League
On three occasions Villas-Boas refused to countenance such talk, insisting he had not even thought about the consequences of a result that would propel Valencia into the last 16 and leave Chelsea in UEFA’s second-tier competition for the first time since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003.
Even with home advantage, it is a precarious position Chelsea find themselves in. A win sees them through, as does a goalless draw. But any other result, from a 1-1 draw to a win for a classy Spanish side sitting third in La Liga — one who have won five of their last six league games — leaves Chelsea and their manager facing some rather more difficult questions.
Villas-Boas recognises it will not be easy, not least because the circumstances for both clubs have changed somewhat since they last met back in September.
Stretched: Chelsea have made hard work of their routine Champions League group
‘Valencia are in a better moment now,’ he said, knowing full well that the same cannot be said of Chelsea.
He can only hope that the events of the weekend do suggest some kind of turning point. The win at Newcastle, the words of support from Didier Drogba, even the fact that the 34-year-old Portuguese has received the backing of his employers in the way he has dealt with Anelka and Alex. On Monday he might have recognised them as ‘top professionals’, but they were not involved in training during the day.
Danger man: Roberto Soldado
‘For players on the transfer list the reality is that, eventually, the mind-set is not the same,’ said Villas-Boas.
It sounded brutal even if it probably amounts to the right decision. As long as he has read the situation correctly and believes the dressing room will be comfortable with such treatment of friends and colleagues.
This being Chelsea, the issue of whether the manager had the support of the players was never far away. Villas-Boas insisted he did. ‘Yes,’ he said in direct response to a direct question, having already had the unequivocal support of the articulate Daniel Sturridge.
‘I am behind the manager and I believe everyone else is,’ he said. ‘He’s going to be here for the next three years.’
If Chelsea are eliminated from the competition and poor results then come against Manchester City and Tottenham it becomes a struggle to see Villas-Boas still being around much beyond the next three games.
But there is a feeling at Stamford Bridge that Tuesday night might not be that critical for the manager, and that it is only a ‘life and death’ game within the context of the competition; that only if Chelsea start to slip down the Premier League table and out of contention for next season’s Champions League would Abramovich start to get an itchy trigger finger. History suggests otherwise, but there you go.
More of the same: The wild celebrations at St James” Park would be most welcome again on Tuesday night at Stamford Bridge
Clearly, though, a good result would ease the kind of pressure Villas-Boas was obviously under until Salomon Kalou scored in the 89th minute against Newcastle and Chelsea were no longer vulnerable to the kind of late goal that has proved costly already this season.
On this point Villas-Boas was dismissive, however.
‘It’s irrelevant what the game represents to me,’ he said. ‘It represents, for this club, the continuation in this competition or not, so we approach the game with maximum care and with confidence.’
Villas-Boas said that Juan Mata had been useful in preparing for a game against his former club, even if he said it was impossible to ‘guess Valencia’s strategy’.
He spoke of the Spaniards being highly motivated and recognised the threat posed by players such as Jonas, Tino Costa, Jeremy Mathieu and Jordi Alba; not to mention the prolific Roberto Soldado. But he also said Chelsea would not be vulnerable to that classic continental counter-attacking style because of the more ambitious approach he has tried to implement.
‘We have more or less tested four different formations,’ said Villas-Boas. ‘The talent of these players and their qualities allow us to play what is best for the team in a precise moment.’
The key, though, is something Drogba touched on at the weekend when he said the players needed to get behind the manager. ‘There’s full belief in what we’re doing,’ said Villas-Boas. ‘We saw a great team spirit at Newcastle, and to score three there gives the value of this team a lot of credit.’
More credit tonight would still be most welcome. Not least for the manager.