Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas and his players called to summit with owner Roman Abramovich
Roman Abramovich held a crisis meeting with Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas and the first-team squad at the club’s Cobham training ground in Surrey on Sunday with fears growing that the season is unravelling.
The players were hauled in after they were told their scheduled day off had been cancelled immediately after the 2-0 away defeat to Everton which saw Chelsea
slip to fifth in the Premier League table.
Abramovich ordered a series of meetings to attempt to clear the air as the Russian billionaire becomes increasingly concerned as to whether Chelsea will finish in the top four this season and, therefore, fail to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since he took ownership of the club in 2003.
The pressure has risen dramatically on Villas-Boas whose own position would now appear under threat for the first time since he was appointed following a run of just two victories in their last 10 league matches and with the vital Champions League tie against Napoli looming, after this weekend’s FA Cup Fifth Round fixture against Birmingham.
Abramovich has been conspicuous by his presence at Chelsea’s training ground over the last days, observing training sessions and closely monitoring Villas-Boas’ methods and how the players react to him.
The manager has brushed aside any concerns over Abramovich’s increased presence – it is partly to do with the ending of his High Court case with Boris Berezovsky – and insisted he retains the full support of the owner.
He did, however acknowledge after the defeat at Everton
that finishing in the top four is a prerequisite.
“Of course. Of course. Of course,” he said. “We need Champions League qualification and that’s what we expect. The objective is first place but first place is not a real objective any more — and neither is second.
"So Champions League qualification is the least you can ask for.”
It was solely Abramovich’s decision to appoint Villas-Boas and the cost of releasing him from his contract at Porto and sacking his predecessor Carlo Ancelotti last May has been put at £28 million in the club’s recently released accounts.
Abramovich has been fully supportive of Villas-Boas in the realisation that changes need to be made at Chelsea and that the club is in a year of transition. If a change is made it will be made reluctantly and only after every avenue is pursued to try and support Villas-Boas.
Abramovich would countenance 'only’ a top four finish this year as long as Chelsea show signs of progressing under Villas-Boas – and an attacking, exciting style of play is important – and do well in the two cup competitions they remain in.
However if it is decided that the 34-year-old Portuguese is struggling then Abramovich has a history of showing that he will not hesitate to sack a manager, despite the cost.
With that in mind, and judging by precedent, the FA Cup tie and, more importantly, the Champions League tie could be key to determining Villas-Boas’s future.
The two-legged tie bookends three league matches against sides in the bottom half of the table – Bolton, West Brom and Stoke – and Abramovich will expect Chelsea to win all three as well as progress in the FA Cup and Champions League.
It is understood that some Chelsea players, who have witnessed Abramovich’s presence at the club before in such scenarios, believe the manager is now vulnerable.
Villas-Boas loves talking strategy, but there were not too many tactical options left as he sought a response to the fans’ anger after this latest defeat.
“Fans have the right to demand from a manager and from the players,” he added.
“If there are persons who are always right, it is the fans.
"They have the right to demand. So maybe they were expecting a different kind of approach to the game.
"When we went 2-0 down the only way we felt we could continue to create problems was to try and bring more striking strength up front and that’s why we went for three up front.
The visiting fans let rip twice. Firstly, with dubious justification when Michael Essien was replaced by Florent Malouda in the 70th minute.
Their discontent was more audible and valid when Juan Mata, the only decent Chelsea player on an abysmal afternoon, was replaced 12 minutes from time.
The gulf between the owners’s vision of a less methodical Chelsea and the reality of passionless players, some of whom do not appear to have the legs or desire to change, is what is undermining Villas-Boas’ aspirations.
It is a bit like ordering him to restyle the house without stripping it of the tired old furniture and wallpaper.
Everton, inspired by Steven Pienaar and Landon Donovan, expertly exposed the familiar flaws of an unprotected and careless defence.
Pienaar, thriving on his return to Goodison Park, struck after five minutes. Denis Stracqualursi, another loanee who may convince Moyes to make the arrangement permanent, secured victory in the second half.
Donovan, the game’s other outstanding contributor, returns to LA Galaxy after next week’s FA Cup tie against Blackpool, ensuring a level of frustration to balance the euphoria.
It was a shame for Moyes that Chelsea’s ineptitude overshadowed the annual Goodison New Year revival, which suddenly makes European qualification seem possible.
Minutes after the final whistle, Villas-Boas was standing at the top of the exhausting, long staircase which leads to the Everton press room as he fended off the inevitable questions about his future.
It was in precisely the same position eight months earlier that Carlo Ancelotti’s responses to defeat were cut short by a statement confirming his sacking.
Yet, it is not the ghost of Ancelotti that haunts Villas-Boas, or those of his predecessors.
It is that of Jose Mourinho, and his extraordinary legacy, which has given none of his successors enough time to prosper.