Monday, 19 September 2011

Chin Up Chelsea: Villas-Boas May Have Finally Cracked It

By Shane Thomas

Yesterday concluded the most coruscating weekend of football I've seen in a while; Spurs beating Liverpool 4-0, Blackburn's comeback 4-3 win over Arsenal, Napoli's storming 3-1 defeat of AC Milan, a scintillating Auld Firm derby with Rangers on the right end of a 4-2 result, PSV and Ajax playing out a 2-2 draw, and a combination of Real Madrid's loss to Levante, and a 8-0 win over Osasuna sending Barcelona back to the top of La Liga.

And that's before I get to the breathtaking and quixotic game that took place at Old Trafford. Manchester United continued their 100% start to the campaign overcoming Chelsea 3-1. It was an astonishing encounter, and we'll have to go some to see a better game this season. The match was shown free-to-air on the American television network Fox Sports, and journalist Grant Wahl joked that a network executive must have had a word with both teams, asking them to play an expanisve, fast-paced attacking style in order to gain some traction with viewers over the pond. Regardless, it resembled a basketball match on occasion, as attacks were numerous, chances frequent, and the final result could have easily ended up as 5-5 rather than 3-1

New manager Andre Villas-Boas has had a tricky start taking charge of the West Londonders, and yesterday was the first time he has tasted defeat in England. But there are many reasons why the club and its fans should be in greater spirits now then at any other time this season.

It's been revealed that Villas-Boas always planned to set Chelsea up in an uncharacteristically attacking manner, as they believed that trying to play cautiously would only result in a narrow loss at best, a heavy one at worst. Last Wednesday night, Benfica showed in the Champions League that without their defensive totems of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, United are vulnerable when put under pressure.

Villas-Boas set the team up to move the ball swiftly, looking to create opportunities for Fernando Torres in at any opportunity, and for most of the first half, Chelsea looked dangerous in possession. Ramires was twice denied by David De Gea; the second time when the Brazilian had the goal at his mercy. The otherwise lacklustre Daniel Sturridge also forced De Gea into action; the only reason why they were 0-3 in arrears at half-time was due to maddening wastefulness. United on the other hand, put on a finishing clinic, taking any chance that came their way, but the lead was not an accurate reflection of the balance of play. They ended the match with twenty-one shots at goal to United's thirteen.

Villas-Boas was left with little recourse but to increase his attacking options in the second-half, bringing Nicolas Anelka on for Frank Lampard. The decision raised a few eyebrows as Lampard is part of the furniture at Chelsea, but they shouldn't have done. Anelka's first contribution was to play a sumptuous pass to play Torres clear on goal, with the quality of the ball matched by a gorgeous finish from the Spaniard, clipping the ball over De Gea to give Chelsea hope. More chances were created, especially for Torres, and I'm sure by now we've all seen his inexplicable open goal miss after rounding the keeper.

Many people - me included - felt that Villas-Boas could endure a tough season, trying to evolve this Chelsea team from the all-conquering side that won back to back Premier League titles under Jose Mourinho in 2005 and 2006, and did the double under Carlo Ancelotti two seasons ago. The demands of the game move on quicker than ever these days, and a once dominant Chelsea now look like an increasingly stolid outfit in comparison to the fluid incisiveness that is a pre-requisite of any high achieving side.

After a stodgy beginning to the season, Villas-Boas may be alighting on the answer to wean Chelsea's off their robust, muscular style embodied by the likes of Lampard, John Obi Mikel and Didier Drogba. While they are accomplished players who will have a part to play over a lengthy nine month season, they may no longer be part of Villas-Boas's Plan A. And despite the juvenile taunts that Torres had to endure after missing an empty net, his all-round performance was encouraging; his movement and application could not be faulted, he took his goal with the aplomb of a Marco Van Basten, and looks to be steadily improving after a moribund start to his Chelsea career.

In the game now, speed and fluidity is the key to breaking teams down. Hence the prominence of Juan Mata, Sturridge and Torres. Anelka may also get plenty of game time as he made an impressive contribution from the bench, showing an intelligence and guile that is seldom associated with the Frenchman. Against United they passed the ball with purpose, attacked with menace, and had that intangible that every good side needs; devil. If this is a precursor to the new Chelsea, then their fans should be looking forward to seeing football that is not only entertaining, but also successful. And with Manchester City showing that their strong early-season performances have slightly gone to their head, there could be a second team for Manchester United to worry about other than their local rivals.


While Blackburn have been given deserved credit for their first win of the season, they still remain one of the Premier League's most disliked sides. This has been the case since Venkys, the club's owners, fired Sam Allardyce as manager and replaced him with Steve Kean. Even in victory, you can still hear pejorative remarks made towards the owners, and how they made their money, often referring to them as "those chicken farmers" - as if such a thing means they have no place in the sport. Now there are plenty of things that you can criticise the Venkys regime for, yet every catcall comes with the reductive slur of "chicken farmers".

It has a worrying underpinning of xenophobia; do people resent that a group of Indian businesspeople have gained a place in English football's top league? Also, some suspect that Kean got his position as a result of underhanded politicking.

Now allow me to be clear. I predicted that Blackburn would be relegated. I still believe this. Nothing in their win over Arsenal convinced me that they'll end the season out of the division's bottom three. I don't think Venkys are particularly good owners, and I don't think Kean is the right man for Blackburn. But he and the owners should be given every chance to prove people wrong without being subjected to such infantile derision. So how about we treat them with a little respect in future?

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