Andre Villas-Boas recently turned 34 but Tuesday was the night when, in soccer terms, he became a man.
The Chelsea manager went into his team’s crucial final group game in the Champions League against Valencia with his neck on the block. Elimination from the competition courtesy of a defeat or a score draw would have likely sparked his arrival on the unemployment line. Such is the stock club owner Roman Abramovich places on European success.
However, with perhaps the most courageous decision of his coaching career, a defiant and dominating performance from his team, then a broad and impassioned verbal swipe at his critics, Villas-Boas stood tall when it counted the most.
This was justification night for the young Portuguese boss, the man handed the mantle of following in Jose Mourinho’s illustrious footsteps. None of his personnel decisions would have met with universal approval. All of them paid.
The first of Chelsea’s three unanswered goals came within three minutes, thanks to Didier Drogba’s strength and precision in the Valencia penalty area. Drogba’s selection is far from a no-brainer these days, with the veteran striker having stalled new contractual talks and touting interest from foreign clubs, including the Los Angeles Galaxy. Furthermore, let us not forget that Abramovich invested a mind-boggling $79.5 million on Fernando Torres at the beginning of this year, meaning the Spaniard’s demotion to the bench was no easy choice, however inept his form.
Yet that was the option Villas-Boas decided upon, in a meeting with his most trusted advisors just ahead of the Carling Cup match-up with Liverpool at the end of last month. That contest ended in defeat, but the principles have remained, and finally bore fruit here.
No more Torres for big games. No more doubting of Drogba. No more pandering to reputation. No more suppression of the precocious young talents of Daniel Sturridge and Oriol Romeu.
Drogba was back to his beastly best on Tuesday, maneuvering into the perfect position early to aim a clinical low left-foot shot into the net from Juan Mata’s precise cross.
An even more significant a statement of intent was the benching of Frank Lampard. This was the first major match since 2003 in which Lampard had been eligible and healthy but had played no part, being selected on the bench and kept there throughout.
Such a move in ditching a player who is said to embody the heartbeat of Chelsea would have been vilified if it had failed, but cannot be questioned now. Lampard, so angered when being asked to start on the bench earlier in the season, appeared to take this snub with dignity.
And how could he argue with this? Chelsea had things effectively wrapped up midway through the first half; Drogba sending the speedy Ramires through and the Brazilian sprinting around the outmatched Victor Ruiz and slotting home the second.
It was only fitting that Drogba rounded out the scoring on 76 minutes, a neat shot that cemented an equally tidy night of business at Stamford Bridge, where the cloud of doom suddenly dispersed like magic.
Finally all things fell into place. Bayer Leverkusen’s disappointing draw in Genk meant Chelsea secured first place in the group – a more valuable commodity this season than in perhaps any other. With Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich among the heavy hitters to have topped their groups, a second-place finish and a potential match-up with one of those giants was a fate well worth averting.
For Villas-Boas, the events of the night left him feeling mightily defiant, and rightly so. The frustration of recent weeks found its release in a spectacular vent that appeared to include a swipe at former Manchester United defender Gary Neville, now working as a television analyst for Sky Sports.
“It was a win of human values, responsibility, solidarity, strength of character, team spirit, ability to take criticism, resilience, and it was a great win for Chelsea players,” Villas-Boas said. “They deserve a respect they don’t get. We’ve been continually chased by different kinds of people but today we’ve given everyone – those critics – a slap in the face.
“We see a Manchester United defender (apparently Neville) who says he doesn’t want to play as a Chelsea player and play in a game like this. This has been a continuous persecution of Chelsea, continuous aggression of one club. We have become your target. We have to accept it.”
To the victor goes the spoils and Villas-Boas deserved his opportunity to rant, having survived potential elimination, of both his club and his own tenure. The road ahead is not without difficulty, and an improvement of English Premier League form will be needed before he wins over all the critics.
But at least, for now, the road is still his to tread.By Martin Rogers,