Jim White

Chelsea crippled by crisis of confidence

Jim White

Andre Villas-Boas was brought (and bought) in by Chelsea to win the Champions League, not the Carling Cup. Losing to Liverpool in the competition's quarter-final is of no significance in the wider revolution that the Portuguese is trying to effect. Nothing changes at the club after last night's woeful departure. Blips do not affect wider policy.

Or at least those are the noises coming out of Stamford Bridge: full steam ahead, captain is the presiding theme. The course is straight and true, just keep on it and all will be well.

The manager, however, will know different. He will be more than aware that while last night may have had little meaning on its own, what it told us about the current condition of the club, and the enormity of the manager's job, was telling. And not particularly encouraging for those of a blue persuasion.

This was the third defeat in the last four home games for Chelsea, a club who until recently were virtually unbeatable at the Bridge. Worse, the one victory in that recent quartet was against a Wolves side so abject they arrived in west London with three points wrapped in a decorative bow. Frankly the 4th Summertown Cub Scout XI would stand a reasonable chance against Mick McCarthy's side currently.

What a coach as intelligent as Villas-Boas will know is that momentum is vital in sport. And while it might be true that the really important fixtures lie ahead (in the next seven days Chelsea play away at Newcastle and at home to Valencia in what is effectively a play-off for further Champions League involvement) how much more encouraging would it be for the coach if his team were entering those engagements with something approaching confidence.

Confidence is all in football. And right now Chelsea appear to have very little to spare. For the past six years, ever since Jose Mourinho swanked into the place, the club has mainlined confidence, oozed it, been so certain about themselves and their direction you could say they were overdosing on self-esteem. Suddenly, like a pin entering a balloon, the magical property seems to have seeped away entirely.

Former stalwarts, unimpeachable, undroppables like Ashley Cole, John Terry and Frank Lampard are showing all too human frailty. Fernando Torres continues to be a one-man confidence vacuum, sucking the morale out of all who come into contact with him, his expression now so long he makes Ruud van Nistelrooy look moon-faced.

Worse, some of the young players on whom Villas-Boas is hoping to rebuild the club are playing apparently in concrete shoes. Whatever Romelu Lukaku resembled last night it was not the new Didier Drogba. He gave a performance every bit as lacking in certainty as Torres. Hopeless in front of the opponents' goal, he then went missing in front of his own when obliged to mark at a corner, allowing Martin Kelly a simple header.

Villas-Boas has mocked the English press for being obsessed with his wilting, £50 million Spanish misfit. A manager who believes in the absolute primacy of the group over the individual, he refuses publicly to discuss the striker's decline.

But surely the journalists asking him last night about the player's hapless performance were entitled to query how someone whose very name, three years ago, was sufficient to send Premier League defenders into nervous spasm, has declined so dramatically. The player is fit. He looks lithe and hungry. Yet he currently seems incapable of trapping a bag of cement.

And when it is a flaw which is by no means unique among the club's senior performers, then it becomes an even more pertinent line of inquiry. Is there something going on behind the scenes that has eroded the collective resolve? Is it something to do with training? With selection? With tactics?

No one at Stamford Bridge is saying. The propaganda is being maintained that all are together behind the scenes; manager, staff and players marching forward in unity. The insistence is that the season will start next Tuesday with the dispatch of Valencia and progress into the Champions League knock-out.

For Chelsea fans, the hope must be that such bravado acts as a restorative to confidence. Because next Tuesday is getting closer by the minute. As it heaves into view, there is no sign that it will signal anything better than the end of the season. And with it, in all probability, the end of yet another reign at Roman's castle.

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