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Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011
Villas-Boas walking tightrope
LONDON — Andre Villas-Boas is on "a knife edge" and "the noose is tightening," according to reports after Chelsea lost 2-1 to Bayer Leverkusen, leaving their Champions League qualification hopes in the balance.
Of course, it is totally ridiculous to even think about sacking a manager after 12 league games. It would be like sacking a manager whose team finished in second place a season after winning the double. Oh hang on . . . that's what Roman Abramovich did to Carlo Ancelotti.
Chelsea has lost four of its last seven matches, and while "sources" say the Russian billionaire remains supportive of AVB, his record of six managers in eight years has made Abramovich the compensation king of English football.
Guus Hiddink, who spent a successful three months at Stamford Bridge "on loan" from Russia in 2009, is on the market after leaving Turkey, so the rumor mill has gathered momentum with each Chelsea defeat. The Dutchman remains close to Abramovich and few would be surprised if Hiddink returned to the Blues on a full-time basis even though AVB would be due ￡20 million compensation.
The Champions League remains Abramovich's holy grail and Chelsea must beat Valencia in the final group game to be sure of reaching the knockout stages. Failure to join Europe's elite would have Abramovich's hair-trigger twitching. As one newspaper headline put it — AVB: Another Vacancy Beckons.
AVB's tactics of a high defensive line have failed, exposing a pedestrian back four to swift counterattacks. The Portuguese favors David Luiz alongside John Terry, but the Brazilian's distribution is careless and many feel he would be more effective as a midfield ball-winner.
Fernando Torres continues to be a ￡50 million misfit, a substitute against Liverpool and Leverkusen. When he does play, the Spain international is generally anonymous, a pale shadow of the player who made such a dynamic impact with Liverpool after his move from Atletico Madrid four years ago.
If there is doom and gloom in west London, it is boom time in the north of the capital with Arsenal and Tottenham. A season which started under a cloud following the departure of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri plus an 8-2 thrashing at Manchester United is suddenly one of promise and hope. The Gunners are the first English side to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League, their 2-1 defeat of Borussia Dortmund, when Arsenal started with 11 different nationalities, was their 11th win in 13 games.
Crisis? What crisis?
Robin van Persie's form puts him a close third behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as Europe's top striker, the Dutch ace scoring a phenomenal 38 goals in 41 games this year.
Van Persie has always been an outstanding player but injuries, many long-term, have affected his progress. He is testing the theory that there is no such thing as a one-man team to the limit and Arsenal must break the bank to ensure RVP, whose current deal has 18 months to run, signs a new contract. Another big-name departure is unthinkable.
Arsene Wenger has kept his cool in the face of almost hysterical criticism — he called the early weeks of the season "hell" — and the New Year return of Jack Wilshere after injury will be like signing a ￡30 million midfielder. Worries still remain about the defence — the jury is still out on Per Mertesacker — but the confidence and cohesion are back and with games against Fulham (home) and Wigan (away) upcoming, the Gunners could be in the top four by December.
Manchester City apart, the team of the season so far is Spurs, currently third and four points behind United with a match in hand. Harry Redknapp's side is playing sparkling football and there is no better central midfielder combination in English football than Luka Modric and Scott Parker, who are supplemented by wingers Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale.
It may be premature to talk of Spurs winning the title but their movement, passing and variety of attacking options make them a joy to watch.
* * *
BLACKBURN has won only six of the 34 matches Steve Kean has been in charge. At every game there are "Kean Out" banners and the club is rooted in the relegation zone after taking just seven points from 12 games.
So what did the club's Indian owners, Venkys, do this week? They gave Kean a pay raise. Perhaps if Blackburn is relegated he'll get another increase and an extended contract.
Some will congratulate Venkys for not bowing to public pressure. Most feel they have pressed the self-destruct on a proud Lancashire club, turning them from an established Premier League outfit under Sam Allardyce, who they sacked, to a club heading for relegation.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.