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Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012

PREMIER REPORT

Villas-Boas latest scapegoat for Chelsea


LONDON — In 40 years of reporting I cannot remember a more hostile media campaign against a manager than the one we are seeing with Chelsea's Andre Villas-Boas.

Christopher Davies

To say Chelsea is a club in crisis is like saying Greece is short of a few bucks.

For the past few weeks AVB has been asked about his future, or lack of it, at every news conference. In fairness to the Portuguese, he has handled his interrogators with patience and politeness though there must come a point when you cannot keep asking the same question.

There are obviously many with anti-AVB agendas at Stamford Bridge or "well-informed sources" as the press calls them. Those with personal grudges and self-interest are leaking stories to a ravenous press, no doubt some true, some fabricated but all damaging to the manager.

This is not to say AVB is blameless for Chelsea's troubles but if some of the players at Anarchy FC could pass the ball as well as they pass the buck, the Blues would not be struggling and without a win in five matches.

The 3-1 defeat by Napoli highlighted not just Chelsea's defensive frailties but the ongoing battle between certain senior players and AVB. Ashley Cole is alleged to have told his manager that he wants to win trophies but won't be able to do so while he is in charge.

Which party would have put that in the public domain, I wonder?

This is not so much a football club but a family at war and the man who controls the outcome, Roman Abramovich, has never uttered a public word since buying the club nine years ago.

AVB maintains he has the backing of the owner but would like public support. That will never happen and apart from being silent, Abramovich is also totally unpredictable, even those closest to him do not know what he will do until he does it.

Power struggles and political intrigue, popular Russian past-times, have been common during the Abramovich era and show no signs of slowing down.

The Russian went out on a limb appointing a 33-year-old with only a couple of years of experience, and Abramovich should, perhaps through chairman Bruce Buck, make it clear he is backing AVB because the silence is undermining the manager.

With every sacking — five so far and in excess of £60 million paid in compensation — the job of Chelsea manager becomes less attractive to the sort of person Abramovich would like. He's almost run out of credible candidates.

AVB inherited a group of aging players whose influence on the club and closeness to Abramovich has been to the detriment of previous managers. With too many top players past their prime and potential replacements not good enough the former FC Porto coach was handed a job that would have tested any manager.

He also has a £50 million non-scoring striker in Fernando Torres.

What did people expect in eight months?

Barcelona lite?

Despite the media vitriol, some "well-informed sources" are now saying Abramovich is fed up with players running the show and has belatedly decided to back his manager, who cost the club £28 million in compensation packages last summer, rather than let the tail wag the dog.

There have been rumors -those sources again — that Rafa Benitez, sacked by Liverpool and Inter Milan in recent years, has been sounded out "in case" Villas-Boas leaves.

Benitez is currently unemployed — would he like a job paying around £4 million a year with a hefty compensation package if/when he is dismissed after a year?

A no-brainer.

Having failed with Liverpool and Inter, why would anyone think he could do better than Carlo Ancelotti and AVB?

The biggest problem AVB has is moving on the old guard because thirty-somethings John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Didier Drogba are on salaries other clubs would struggle to match.

Lampard has a £1.5 million loyalty bonus in his contract to be paid when the deal expires in June 2013.

Even AVB's critics will admit he does not behave like a dead manager walking. He has a confidence bordering on arrogance that may come from having Abramovich's backing albeit in private.

* * *

BECAUSE OF Arsenal's ongoing underachievement as it heads toward a seventh successive trophy-less season, each game carries a "make or break" tag these days.

It would be sad if, when Arsene Wenger eventually leaves Arsenal, he is remembered as a so-called failure rather than the Gunners' most successful manager, but he is fast running out of credit.

During his first nine years in charge Arsenal won seven trophies, but Wenger is now set to oversee the longest barren spell in the club's modern history.

Tottenham has never finished above Arsenal during Wenger's 15 years in charge, but defeat by Harry Redknapp's side on Sunday would leave the Gunners 13 points behind Spurs with 12 games remaining.

It may not be make or break, but his 34th North London derby is certainly Wenger's most important as Arsenal attempts to at least end the season with the local bragging rights.

* * *

LIVERPOOL IS odds-on favorite to end its six-year spell without a trophy when it plays Cardiff in the League Cup final Sunday.

The League Cup is the only domestic honor to elude Kenny Dalglish in his managerial career, and while, during the Reds' glory days "only" winning the competition represented failure, victory at Wembley would be seen as progress for the club.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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