Andre Villas-Boas was prickly and in denial to the last – no surprise perhaps that the 34-year-old distrusted the British media after quickly being dubbed Mr Chippy (behind his back only, of course) in response to his abrasive nature with the press hacks – insisting he still had the owner’s full support when the writing on the wall had become clear for all to witness. After the 1-0 defeat at the Hawthorns on Saturday, he refused to be drawn on perhaps the final nail in his Chelsea coffin, but maybe, just maybe it was the news relayed back to Mr Abramovich that a vast minority of the travelling fans had turned against their manager that persuaded the Russian to pull the trigger of that increasingly familiar gun.
For long before the weekend trip to the Midlands it had become a matter of when, not if, Villas-Boas’ short tenure in SW6 would come to an end. He’d lost a quite significant and powerful section of the dressing room a while ago, and certainly bringing his fractious relationship with certain players so unashamedly out into the public was never going to end well. It seemed the owner’s patience was wearing thin as he began to make daily visits to the training ground, silently but dangerously watching the manager put the players through their paces. For what it is worth, Abramovich would have been as reluctant to sack Villas-Boas more than any of the Portuguese’s predecessors; AVB was personally selected by the owner as the young manager to rebuild and renovate the Stamford Bridge playing staff as comprehensively as anyone since José Mourinho back in 2004. Ultimately, though, the prospect of losing Champions League football next season was one too frightening for Abramovich to ponder much longer.
The question most Chelsea fans ought now to be asking is: where now? The promotion from within of Roberto Di Matteo on an interim basis for the rest of the season should placate those dissenting voices on the terraces and in the dressing room, and perhaps the removal alone of Villas-Boas will lift a shadow and see a reversal in on-field fortunes. But what if it doesn’t? What if Chelsea exit the FA Cup this evening at Birmingham City, stutter on Saturday at home to Stoke City and then suffer another comprehensive Champions League defeat to Napoli next week? How long will the caretaker and his team get to turn things around?
Beyond this campaign it seems like a preferred candidate or two have already been identified; those pointing at Rafa Benitez or Fabio Capello’s odds at the bookies might do well to wonder why they aren’t in charge already if they were the owner’s first choice. The clamour for Mourinho’s return in the summer is only likely to gather pace in the weeks and months to come, as he nears the Spanish exit door after what looks set to be another very successful job well done in Madrid. The Special One’s legend at Chelsea remains, but so do doubts over his long-term suitability to the job. He will demand more control, more autonomy than last time, concessions one finds it very difficult to see Abramovich making. He may well seem the ideal man to come in and begin the evolution of, pretty much, the squad he left 5 years previously – it seems much more plausible that he, unlike Villas-Boas, will be able to manage the likes of Lampard, Terry, Drogba and Cole as their careers enter the twilight years . However, lest we forget that he left last time around for a good few reasons; these must be addressed and rectified or else old ground and old conflicts will surely only be around the corner.
One would imagine Guardiola is more likely Abramovich’s No.1 target, and the Barcelona boss has spoken previously about his ambition to try something new in the future, although you sense he won’t wish to leave Catalonia after surrendering the Spanish league crown to rivals Real Madrid. Perhaps a third European Cup in four years might provide the going-out-on-a-high that he feels his legacy deserves.
Speculation will no doubt rage for the next 3 months, although certainly of more pressing concern is that Di Matteo can resuscitate our season and secure that all-important top-four finish above all else. As for Villas-Boas, he is undoubtedly a very bright young manager. The right-man-wrong-time cliché has been bandied about and you get the feeling that could be quite an accurate observation; perhaps a couple of years later, or with a different group of ageing players, he might have fared better. He will take his project on to somewhere more understanding, more forgiving, more willing to provide him with the time and backing he needs to implement change. He has, in many ways, been treated pretty poorly by Chelsea, but then so was Ancelotti, so was Ranieri, so was Mourinho; it is, inevitably, just the Abramovich way, just the Chelsea way now too. You wouldn’t bet against him having the last laugh though, you wouldn’t bet against him getting his hands on that Champions League trophy before Abramovich does.
Written by Sam, @daspecial_1