Monday, March 5, 2012

Time waits for no man at Stamford Bridge

Roman Abramovich gathered his trusted advisors around him at Chelsea's Cobham training complex on Sunday to put the final touches to another brief managerial reign by sacking Andre Villas-Boas.

Director Eugene Tenenbaum and chief executive Ron Gourlay were in attendance while chairman Bruce Buck will have been kept in the loop as the end came for the 34-year-old Portuguese who has only been at Chelsea for nine months.

Abramovich answers to no-one at Stamford Bridge - certainly not the growing number of managers he has hired and fired during his time as Chelsea owner. If he has been taking advice, however, the growing body of evidence suggests some of it has been bad.

And yet it might be the greatest service the secretive, silent Abramovich's inner circle could do Chelsea if they plucked up the courage to point out the mistakes the Russian has made, the list of errors that mean he is now further away from his dream of winning the Champions League than at any point in his time in the club.

Abramovich made a mistake in allowing "The Special One" Jose Mourinho to slip from his and Chelsea's grasp in 2007. The pair's relationship had fractured but common sense decreed that his departure was never going to be good news for anyone at Stamford Bridge.

He made a mistake in sacking the experienced and worldly Carlo Ancelotti for having the audacity to fail to win a trophy in the 12 months following his historic feat of winning the Premier League and FA Cup double.

Andre Villas-Boas signed a three-year deal at Chelsea after leaving Porto on 20 June, 2011. Photo: Getty

And now, having personally overseen the appointment of Villas-Boas, Abramovich has effectively admitted to another error by sacking him in such short order, with Saturday's loss at West Bromwich Albion the final straw in a sequence of only three wins in 12 league games.

Abramovich's wealth and lavish investment in Chelsea's squad has always acted as an effective shield against criticism, but discontent with performances this season suggests a tipping point is being reached.

What Abramovich did get right was, after sacking Villas-Boas, turning his fire on Chelsea's players who have done little to assist their young former manager in his time of struggle - indeed at times seeming almost willing to add to his troubles.

Chelsea has leaked like a sieve with stories designed to paint an unflattering picture of Villas-Boas' man-management and technical skills, undermining his attempts to move an ageing and under-achieving squad on to the next stage of its development.

Time will tell if Abramovich's harsh words have any effect on the powerful characters inside the Chelsea dressing room as the real fear emerges that they may not even qualify for next season's Champions League.

Abramovich came within a John Terry slip of clasping his Holy Grail, the Champions League, against Manchester United in Moscow in 2008. He must know the opportunity may disappear forever if he gets his next big decision wrong, or is allowed to get it wrong by those around him at Stamford Bridge.

No-one other than those chosen few lieutenants can second guess Abramovich with any degree of accuracy, but if he does not make the right choices in the months ahead Manchester City will stretch further away, Manchester United will be the ever-present domestic benchmark and Barcelona and Real Madrid may not even believe Chelsea are worthy of consideration as serious European rivals.

Mourinho and Ancelotti gave Abramovich domestic supremacy while Avram Grant took the former's team and guided them to the Champions League final, although his record since suggests this was one occasion when player power was a force for good.

Abramovich handpicked Villas-Boas from Porto after he won the title and the Europa League, but it was always going to be a tough task for a rookie manager to make long-term plans at a club with such short-term vision.

If Chelsea's squad was to be overhauled and the elder statesmen edged towards the exit, this was surely a task better suited to someone with Ancelotti's background allied to his diplomatic and political know-how rather than a man in his managerial infancy, albeit one who had made impressive beginnings?

He leaves having got virtually nowhere with his task of reducing the average age of Chelsea's squad and providing a more attractive style of play. Abramovich is back to the drawing board and even he must know his next selection must be made with utmost care then left to lay the foundations for Chelsea's future, irrespective of complaints from within the dressing room and without breaking into a cold sweat at the first sign of a bad run.

So where does Abramovich go from here? The usual suspects are being assembled and lined up.

The name of Mourinho will surely be at the forefront of Abramovich's thoughts. The rub here will be that, after their split, the current Real Madrid coach would almost certainly demand total control over all football affairs, something the Russian may be reluctant to accept.

If he can force himself to take such a step, Abramovich will be swamped with goodwill and gratitude from Chelsea's supporters who have not forgotten Mourinho's brilliance and also by many of the players he has left behind.

The dilemma for Mourinho is that time has moved on at Chelsea in his absence and many of those he trusted and who trusted him, such as John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Petr Cech and Didier Drogba, are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning.

Another name exercising Abramovich's mind will be Barcelona's Pep Guardiola, currently considering whether to agree an extension to his contract at the Nou Camp.

Is it a serious possibility, however, that he would leave the dreamland he has created in Catalonia with players such as Messi, Xavi and Iniesta - and the club that has stamped its philosophy through his veins - for the dysfunctional beast that is Chelsea?

It appears former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has been cast aside as a short-term option, although a run of poor results for caretaker Roberto Di Matteo may prompt yet further action.

So will Abramovich be tempted to make the 'revolutionary' move of exploring domestic managerial territory?

Former Chelsea winger Pat Nevin made his views clear when he said: "I would grab Everton's David Moyes in two minutes, get him in there and tell him to start the dynasty."
Is Moyes really global or glamorous enough for Abramovich, who wants Chelsea to play a part on the world stage?

Even his choice of Di Matteo as a temporary solution until the end of the season tilts against logic. The Italian was part of the Villas-Boas regime Abramovich deemed unworthy and yet he has effectively been charged with either moving Chelsea into the latter stages of the Champions League or, at the very least, qualifying for next season's competition.

The only other theory is that Abramovich has a narrow list of targets and wants Di Matteo to simply hold the fort until the summer. If this is the case it almost smacks of Chelsea's owner admitting defeat, with the accompanying danger that the likes of Mourinho or Guardiola are unlikely to be tempted to a club nestling in the Europa League.

So another day brings another change in Chelsea manager - but it may also take a change in Stamford Bridge's enigmatic owner if the next move is to be a success.

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