Can Chelsea fans forgive Villas-Boas?

By: timbersfan , 12:04 AM GMT on February 17, 2012

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Did you see the tsunami of apologies pouring out of Merseyside on Sunday? One apiece from Liverpool's striker, manager and managing director (though we've yet to get one from the guy responsible for the soggy meat pies at Anfield). Who cares if none was probably penned by the people who issued them, but were instead painstakingly handcrafted by John Henry and his NESV spinmeisters? Let's face it -- no one ever really means it when they say "I'm sorry" but it's always nice to hear even if it's a couple of months late.

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On a weekend when Arsenal gutted out an away win, Chelsea put up a weak effort against Everton at Goodison Park.
And in that spirit, it would be churlish of me not to add to the contrition fest. So I hereby apologize for wasting the previous paragraph discussing those apologies.

Anyway, now that Manchester United has accepted the Reds' groveling expressions of regret for their role in the most tedious EPL saga since Mario Balotelli threw a dart at Carlos Tevez's John Terry armband, even the reigning Guinness world-record holder for grudge nursing, Sir Alex Ferguson, has climbed down from the moral high ground and declared it OK to "move on."

Speaking of "moving on," I wonder where Andre Villas-Boas will be coaching next?

As preposterous as it might appear, Fernando Torres may not be the most expensive mistake that Roman Abramovich has made in the past year (and I'm factoring in that giant boat he bought that'll probably sink). Sure, AVB's three-year contract costs some $60 million less than the epically disappointing striker, but his team's ongoing spiral into mediocrity could cost Chelsea something far more valuable to the Russian's bloated ego -- his precious spot in the Champions League.

After surging ahead by five points in the Battle for Fourth, Chelsea's slide has gathered momentum -- winless in its past four league games against Norwich, Swansea, Manchester United and Everton -- with the Blues having been outscored 5-0 in their past 126 minutes.

If it hadn't been for Spurs' evisceration of Newcastle by the same margin, Chelsea might have found itself staggering about in sixth place. As it is, the Blues are still on the periphery of the Top Four, trailing Arsenal on goal difference.

Villas-Boas has been fortunate that the British press has focused its withering glare almost exclusively on the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra farrago. Otherwise it would be sifting through the smoking debris of the train wreck at Stamford Bridge. And now that everyone has kissed and made nice, can the hot sun through the magnifying glass be far behind?

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Against Chelsea, Landon Donovan worked hard on both sides of the ball and helped set up Everton's second goal.
Enough people witnessed Chelsea's lifeless display at Goodison Park to wonder whether the dour Blues of the 1980s had shown up in their old away kit. The Londoners were outhustled, outpassed and outplayed by an Everton side inspired by the Hello-Goodbye MLS loanee, Landon Donovan. (Hey Landon, stay in England. It's better for your game and Wayne Rooney can introduce you to a world-class hair transplanter).

You don't need to be a Chelsea Kremlinologist to divine what usually happens when Abramovich and his personal Politburo turn up at Chelsea's training ground twice in the same week and feel the urgency to address the deflated troops, as they did a day after the Everton debacle.

Having the Russian with the famously itchy trigger finger within sniper range couldn't have done wonders for AVB's confidence despite his claims that he doesn't fear the inevitable bullet, although the way he continually crouches on the sideline suggests he's intent on providing as small a target as possible.

Buying out Carlo Ancelotti's contract and paying Porto a wad of cash to release AVB cost Abramovich an astonishing $44 million. When you add in the price tags of Torres ($80 million), David Luiz ($34 million) and Juan Mata ($37 million), you're moving beyond the chump change boundary as Roman continues his quixotic quest for European glory. Do you have any idea how long it must have taken Abramovich to come up with that much money? At least a solid hour rooting around his couch cushions.

But rather than the procession toward the Champions League trophy he imagined, the Russian has bought himself a hot, dysfunctional mess, presided over by a 35-year-old whose youth, once lauded as proof of his prodigious talent, now hints at him being not quite ready for Premier League prime time. To be fair, AVB was never going to be The Special One 2.0 in his first EPL season, but as invidious as the comparison may be, AVB knew exactly the minefield he was stepping onto: Win. Win now. Win a lot. Or join the slag heap of detritus containing the seven other managers from the past nine years. Also, Roman's proclivity to buy expensive, shiny and ultimately useless objects such as Torres, Andriy Shevchenko and Juan Sebastian Veron was clearly understood when AVB entered his marital compact.

All the manager needed was a quick glance around the dressing room to realize that he would have to rebuild, starting with a decaying spine that is now far closer to the glue factory than to EPL dominance. Fading Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Michael Essien, Didier Drogba and Terry were all once world-class players, but age and physical wear have caught up and are now lapping them on the Prem's velodrome of death.

David Hirshey
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
• The table has turned
• Stoke is stoked
• Prem's ugliest feuds
• The Premier Liga
• Lessons of transfer window
• Manchester City's egos
• Is Arsenal disarmed?
• The more things change

But AVB was supposed to be all about breaking new ground anyway. What happened to all the brave talk about Chelsea's impressive youth academy embodied by the next Paul Scholes in 18-year-old Joshua McEachran, who after being unable to get anything but midweek league cup minutes is at least now getting a run about at Swansea City? True, Daniel Sturridge is young and dynamic, but AVB has, as yet, been unable to impose any discipline on his tyro's shoot-don't-pass game, though you can hardly blame him when he looks up and sees Torres as his strike partner.

If you cared about being equitable -- and Abramovich doesn't -- AVB has never had the chance to truly make this Chelsea side his own, given the terminally crippling presence of Torres. Even after AVB brought in the creative midfielder Mata with a view to serving tasty tapas for his fellow Spaniard to devour, the Blues are still launching balls for Torres to chase aimlessly into the corners as they did against Everton. The whole point of Mata was that he would able to thread quick, precise through balls to the striker on the counter, but it only works when Mata is playing in the hole behind Torres and for some reason, AVB has chosen to frequently isolate his playmaker out wide in a 4-3-3 formation that is as stodgy as it is impotent.

"I think today was one of our worst games of the season, if not the worst," AVB conceded afterward, failing to notice that his pep talk was being given at Ancelotti's final resting place, Goodison Park. And then in the spirit of the weekend, he, too, apologized. "I will take full responsibility," he said. Coming barely a week after finally confessing that the Blues have no hope of winning the Prem title -- piercing deduction, Sherlock -- all of this profundity might have Roman's helicopter hovering over the training ground for the rest of the season.

AVB has only his stubbornness to blame for his predicament. A choice of Torres or a blind uniped up top would be debatable, but selecting the Iberian no-hoper to spearhead the Chelsea attack over Sturridge is an act of Jobsian obduracy. His formations change with glacial frequency. His loyalty to Portuguese countrymen like Jose Bosingwa and Raul Meireles is culturally admirable but the height of tactical cluelessness. And why Sideshow Luiz is ever permitted to touch the ball within his own half is a question that only large dogs and small children can answer.

All good managers, of course, need time to imprint their personality on their team, but time is Abramovich's most penurious currency. If AVB doesn't nail down a Champions League spot for 2012-13 and advance to at least the semifinals of the CL this season, the Russian will find either another year-long high-cost rental, or pull a George Steinbrenner and rehire his own more stylish but less physically dangerous version of Billy Martin -- Jose Mourinho.

Now that's a handshake I'd pay to see.

Merci for the memories, Titi

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Michael Regan/Getty Images
Thierry Henry scored the winning goal against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, proving yet again that Arsene Wenger was correct in bringing the striker back on loan.
In hindsight, I was, to use Kenny Dalglish's petulant phrase, "bang out of order" to question the wisdom of Thierry Henry's loan deal. When I first heard that my favorite Arsenal player was returning for six weeks to play for our beloved club, I thought that Arsene Wenger had finally succumbed to an overdose of misty-eyed sentimentality. Or the wily Frenchman was using Henry's feel-good brand as his prima facia excuse for not bringing in any quality strikers to partner a desperately lonely Robin van Persie. But after Henry's two storybook match winners at the death, plus the final goal in the 7-1 emasculation of Blackburn, I must now beg forgiveness for ever doubting the greatness of Wenger and his brilliance in inviting Cardinal Henry to return to the Emirates Papacy. I bow my head, beg for clemency and promise to chant, "Wenger is my lord, I shall not want. Thierry is legend."

My only disappointment is that Wenger couldn't beguile the Red Bulls into extending Henry's stay through the North London love-in with Spurs at the end of the month. I mean, if David Beckham could muscle the Galaxy into allowing him to swan around Milan beyond his original loan deal, why do the Red Bulls have to be such buzz-killers? It's not as though New York's MLS team is some fine-tuned juggernaut. Will having Henry for the first two weeks of preseason make that much of a difference to his fitness or his delicate understanding with Luke Rodgers? Imagine moving from playing next to the most dangerous striker in English soccer to partnering a Notts County washout and you can see why Henry is in no rush to come home to his $15 million Tribeca triplex. Once back in the Big Apple, he'll be playing 15th fiddle behind Jeremy Lin and any and all New York Giants.

Similarly, are Arsenal fans now supposed to be filled with confidence when instead of Henry coming on for the last 20 minutes, we are likely to get Marouane Chamakh, who has scored a total of two goals -- or one fewer than Henry -- since arriving at the Emirates in November 2010? We all know that the Moroccan would have butchered Andrei Arshavin's sublime (now there's a word you haven't seen next to the Russian's name in a while) cross in the 90th minute against Sunderland like a beef cow at a Texas barbeque.

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That said, it's time to give Wenger some credit for having the guts to make bold, attacking substitutions when Per Mertesacker went down in an even clumsier heap than is his norm. Rather than plugging in a like-for-like replacement (although Dolph Lundgren doesn't sit on the Arsenal bench), he chose to bring on Aaron Ramsey, Henry and Arshavin. Yes, that Arshavin. Ramsey scored the equalizer with a shot that pinballed between both posts, while the much-maligned Russian, who caused a near mutiny two weeks ago at the Emirates when he came on for wonder boy Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and promptly lost his mark on the winning goal, is still feared enough that two Sunderland players, Phil Bardsley and Sebastian Larsson, both tried to close him down on the left wing. With that Arshavinesque vision of old that has been painfully absent this season, the Russian found a sliver of space between them to squeeze in a cross to the only spot in front of the Sunderland goal where it could neither be cut out by a defender nor grabbed by the keeper. Instead there was Henry, with the speed and intelligence to brilliantly judge the flight of the ball, opening up his body just enough to latch onto the pass and, with a flick of his ankle, lift the Gunners into fourth place.

If by some miracle Arsenal can hang on and qualify for the Champions League, it should erect a statue in Henry's honor. Oh, sorry …

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