Chelsea Champions League Preview: 5 Reasons Why André Villas-Boas Must Beat Napoli
Chelsea are in southern Italy for their round-of-16 Champions League tie as they escape from the stress of their flagging domestic campaign.
Conjecture is rife about André Villas-Boas' future with the Blues lying fifth in the Premier League table while the weekend's 1-1 draw at home to Birmingham City throws up a replay at St Andrews next week.
The ex-Porto coach tonight faces his biggest match in his short spell on the King's Road, as a nifty Napoli entertain the West London side, boasting one of European football's most entertaining and devastating attacking line ups.
But here are five reasons why a win is essential for 34-year-old Villas-Boas and Chelsea.
STOP THE NERVES
For the first time on Saturday, André Villas-Boas looked fraught with anxiety in the Chelsea dugout.
Finally the pressure, the speculation and the criticism had begun to take its toll, ironically the day after Guus Hiddink, many Chelsea players’ choice to answer their SOS, had penned a deal to take over at Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala. That poured over on to the pitch, as his side played out an abject half of football against Championship side Birmingham City in their FA Cup 5th round tie.
The Portuguese had hitherto played a good poker face, despite the strain of dealing with infamous egomaniacs and a trigger-happy owner. But now that his mannerisms are being reflected by the players, any doubt that the buck doesn’t stop with him has ended. It is essential that he masks that edginess against SL Napoli, not least because some of the players have no faith in him, and much hinges on his positive energy ito score a positive result.
Until last week’s Milan misery, European football had provided Arsène Wenger with some respite away from the rigours of Premier League football.
Chelsea have won just four of their last nine domestic matches, and their turgid displays are as in need of a shot of adrenaline as Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. Didier Drogba will start at the expense of the impotent Fernando Torres, and the African’s alpha male pride, however selfish, invariably benefits his team. Villas-Boas’ best victory this season came in the final must-win group stage game against Valencia at Stamford Bridge in December, when the Blues won 3-0 and Drogba scored twice.
His manager’s future was shrouded in doubt back then, and the onus would appear to be on Chelsea’s number 11 to fend off the vultures again.
Most football fans are fickle and Saturday’s cup game saw mutiny that rose to such a level that there were chants serenading José Mourinho. Supporters at Stamford Brigde are as dubious of Villas-Boas as some of his players, but unlike the Frank Lampard and Florent Malouda, the manager cannot sell supporters from the club.
Napoli defeated Manchester City at the Stadio San Paolo, drew at Eastlands and are rapidly becoming many football followers’ second team on the continent.
Their fervent ultra support will ensure that any jeering from away supporters will be drowned out like a jumbo jet’s engine over John Terry shouting, but Villas-Boas will have something to shout about if Chelsea achieve a score draw or win. No English club has won in Naples.
QUELL THE DOUBTERS
Despite the opprobrium that Villas-Boas has generated, he should be in a position of relative calm.
He has had players forced upon, finicky factions to manage and an impatient owner to please, so any sacking during this season shouldn’t damage his credibility. The caveat is that the Porto-born coach may soon succumb to the same scrutiny which beset Fabio Capello in London, ie. that he doesn’t really care.
His nerves at the weekend would appear that ambition, not avarice, fuels his motivation, and the grumpy tone at his press conference last night was business-like and defiant. Chelsea has provided a win-win haven for managers as esteemed as Luiz Felipe Scolari and Carlo Ancelotti, or as egregious as Avram Grant, and that will continue to linger during the Abramovich era.
It would be easy to assume that because certain squad members have been vocal in disenchantment that Villas-Boas’ work ethic may only be half-hearted, but a mature tactical display on a testing platform may see him restore faith and morale.
GO ONE BETTER THAN ANCELOTTI
In his debut season at Chelsea, Abramovich considered sacking Carlo Ancelotti after the Blues succumbed to Mourinho’s Internazionale in the last 16.
Ancelotti of course went on to win the domestic double that campaign, and although that feat won’t be repeated by his successor, a last-eight berth (at least), although not considered successful in West London, may buy him time.
If Chelsea were to punch above their weight in the Champions League knockout phase, it would reflect favourably on Villas-Boas, rather than his players. He has inherited footballers he doesn’t want and deserves time on that virtue alone, which would make any triumph over Napoli a major success.
In Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi, the Neapolitans boast three musketeers who swash and buckle with a combined age of 75.
Chelsea, with their declining old guard, would be like Gary Cooper conquering in the face of youthful adversity if they shoot down their opponents to claim a major scalp. Hiddink, in his half-season at the Bridge, reached the semi-final and won the FA Cup. That is not beyond Villas-Boas.
Villas-Boas is eager for backing from a disgruntled Chelsea board:
Carlo Ancelott's assistant at the Bridge implores the club to keep the faith with the misfiring Fernando Torres: