Jim White

Bravery set to backfire on AVB

Jim White

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It was, according to Graeme Souness, speaking ahead of last night's Champions League game in Naples, the shortest suicide note in football history. Just 11 words long, consisting of the names on Andre Villas-Boas's team sheet.

It certainly looked a touch on the odd side, the Chelsea manager's selection. Why, for instance, would you pick Raul Meireles ahead of Michael Essien? And even if he were carrying an injury, why would you put Ashley Cole on the bench and play Jose Bosingwa instead? Frankly, Cole with one of his legs cut off would be a better option than Bosingwa.

And surely, given that he has more experience of tough European encounters than the entire opposition put together, leaving out Frank Lampard is a prime example of cutting off your nose to spite your face. Sure, AVB might need to rebuild the club. But he also needs to win matches as he does so, otherwise his P45 will be delivered with the speed and ruthlessness of an assassin's bullet. And bringing down the superstructure around him hardly seems the most sensible approach to keeping his job.

Yet, in a way you have to admire the young Portuguese manager's bravery. This is an argument he has to have if he is going to get anywhere in south west London. What he fondly refers to as his "project" entirely depends on him confronting it sooner rather than later. And what is it that he has to confront? Well, the very soul of the modern Chelsea.

Last week I interviewed Didier Drogba. He is a fine man, a good humanitarian and — despite in his early days agitating for a transfer — none can doubt his commitment to Chelsea. Astonishingly in his eight years at the club he has played under six managers. Yet, despite a clear lack of managerial continuity caused by the owner's skittish approach to coach recruitment, in that time he has won three titles and a variety of other baubles.

Why? Because a core of the team — Cech, Terry, Cole, Essien, Lampard and Drogba himself — have been there throughout, providing the consistency lacking in the dugout. I got the feeling from Drogba that in a sense, for them, the key players, it doesn't matter who is in charge, they'll just carry on doing what they always have.

The result is that in their hands lies much of the power within the club. Whatever Drogba might now claim about his respect for Felipe Scolari, it was the senior players who had the Brazilian removed. Avram Grant, too, never won over the dressing room. And was finished as a consequence. There is a legitimate feeling within the club that that sextet runs Chelsea.

Which is the problem the new manager faces. Villas-Boas was recruited with the specific task of rebuilding the team, getting rid of the oldies and bringing in some fresh blood. Given the effects of chronology were most apparent in his rapidly ageing core, that essentially meant removing the very people on whom the club had so long relied. He had to take on the sextet.

It was neither a pretty nor easy task. It was a task, moreover, which none of his immediate predecessors had felt inclined to address. Carlo Ancelotti, perhaps misguidedly given what happened to him subsequently, presumed that the old boys winning the double would be sufficient to keep him in work. Besides, there was no need to wield the scalpel while they will still delivering. Let the future look after itself, the managers told themselves. After all, you probably won't be around to see it anyhow.

Villas Boas, however, has boldly set about his task removing the dying wood. What he was saying with his team selection last night was this: we no longer need you guys. Frank, Michael, Ashley: here's your bibs, go sit on the bench. If Fernando Torres were in any sort of form, Didier would have joined them.

You could see what he was trying to do. It was a brave strategy. And it might have worked had it not been undermined by this slight inconvenience: the players he selected ahead of the old guard simply weren't as good. Only Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge gave any real sense of proper renewal. The rest varied from those we could politely say were having an off day (Ivanovic, Ramires, Cahill, Malouda) to those merely confirming their own inadequacy (David Luiz, Bosingwa).

Of course, were AVB operating in a more rational environment, there would be no requirement on him to express such haste. He could take his time, persuade the old boys to give him once last hurrah even as he eased their removal from the stage.

But with a trigger happy owner, he can't hang around. He has to act now, whether he has the resources available or not. He has to demonstrate he is the man in charge. He has quickly to impose his vision. And you sense, even as he does so, Souness is right: we are witnessing a manager signing his own resignation letter.

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