Leboeuf: AVB still seeking perfect blend
Four games into the new season, Premier League champions Manchester United have four wins on the board, sit top of the table and boast an imposing +15 goal difference. The praise has come thick and fast, with words like 'unstoppable' and 'juggernaut' regularly cropping up in discourse about Sir Alex Ferguson's side, and it is surely only a matter of the time before the betting gimmicks begin and the bookmakers pay out on United reclaiming their title.
But Sir Alex Ferguson's class of 2011-12 would do well to remember that just 12 months ago it was Chelsea who ruled the Premier League playground, bullying the likes of West Brom and Wigan into submission. Starting the 2010-11 campaign with five straight victories, 21 goals scored and just one conceded, the Blues were comfortably top of the class and cruising towards being crowned valedictorians for a second successive season.
But the Stamford Bridge steamroller began to stutter and splutter, eventually grinding to a halt in November as Carlo Ancelotti's out-of-sorts side went six matches without a win - an undistinguished streak that allowed United to ghost in and claim one of the most unconvincing of their record-breaking 19 title triumphs.
On Sunday, Chelsea visit United with their hosts looking to avoid the sort of slip up that could potentially lead to a Blues-style fall from grace, and bookmakers across the county to rue their premature publicity stunts. For Andre Villas-Boas' players, it is an opportunity to make a statement of intent and improve on the club's already-exemplary record at Old Trafford. Indeed, Sir Alex has tasted home defeat to Chelsea more often than any other side during his tenure, with the West Londoners winning six and drawing nine of their 23 league games in the Ferguson era.
One of those victories came in November 1996, when goals from Michael Duberry and Gianluca Vialli fired the Blues to a 2-1 win. The match was France international Frank Leboeuf's first appearance at Old Trafford after he arrived at Stamford Bridge from Strasbourg and the centre-back went on to experience only two league defeats against United in five years at Chelsea. Leboeuf has continued to follow the fortunes of his former club and he believes that Villas-Boas is building a side capable of competing with Ferguson's rampant United.
"I don't think the gap has widened between Manchester United and Chelsea as much as people are suggesting," Leboeuf told ESPNsoccernet. "It is true that United are really flying right now, whereas Chelsea are fighting to get results. But they have got those results through hard work and are still unbeaten this season. There's only two points between the two teams, which is fine at this stage.
"I really don't think United will be able to continue this momentum for the entire season and it could be a reverse of last year when Chelsea started well but faded. Chelsea's squad is getting much stronger and I think John Terry and Daniel Sturridge scoring against Sunderland last weekend symbolises the blend of experience and youth that Chelsea are striving towards. Sturridge is showing he can fight with Torres, Anelka, Drogba, Malouda and Kalou for a place in the first XI and there is great competition up front, which is good for the squad.
"I really think Chelsea are better equipped than last year. The competition wasn't there last season and many of the players seemed sure of their places all the time. But now it is open. You look at someone like Frank Lampard who, despite recent criticism, I believe is still in excellent shape, and his place isn't as secure as it has been in the past. That's the same with everybody."
Even if Lampard and fellow old head Didier Drogba are no longer guaranteed starters for Chelsea, Leboeuf believes that he and the other more experienced players at the club will play a vital role in balancing out the youthful exuberance of new singings Oriol Romeu, Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois and Juan Mata.
"John Terry and Frank Lampard's experience remains huge. Along with Petr Cech and Didier Drogba they remain Chelsea's nucleus, then you can have the young players fitting in around them and try to make the perfect squad,'' he said. ''Having only young players doesn't work, as Arsenal have shown. You need the Terrys and Lampards of this world because, even if they are over 30, they are still fantastic players and they provide the youngsters with advice.
"Theirs is an important role - I remember talking to John a lot when he was just breaking into the first team and I have seen on the pitch that he didn't forget what I told him! Sometimes when I've been to Chelsea he has thanked me and Marcel [Desailly] for advising him and helping him improve his game. If you have younger players who want to listen and learn, advising them is one of the best gifts you can give. Your time has gone and you are making room for younger players - it is only fair after football has given you a chance, you should pay it back."
Arguably the biggest challenge for Villas-Boas at Chelsea is to put his own stamp on a club that still has Jose Mourinho's fingerprints all over it, and Leboeuf believes that as long as he is given time, the younger Portuguese manager can step out of the Mourinho-sized shadow that still looms over Stamford Bridge even after Carlo Ancelotti's best efforts to cast it aside.
"I think everybody sees Villas-Boas as a younger copy of Mourinho but I think maybe he is cooler than the Special One," Leboeuf explained. "He has brought a great atmosphere to the squad and the Chelsea training ground appears to be a good place to be, while he has also inspired a dramatic improvement in some of the players. Jose Bosingwa has had a disappointing couple of years but he has come back in good shape and is having a very good season.
"It's refreshing for Chelsea to have a young coach. I played under Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli, who were both young coaches and they both created a good dressing-room atmosphere - the discussions were simpler because they were the same generation. I just hope Villas-Boas will stay more than two years! I don't think him not being an ex-professional will be a problem. He has already been welcomed by the players, he is always smiling in interviews and he is very smart; he knows that he has a big pressure but he thrives on it."
One of the first major tests of Villas-Boas' leadership arrived earlier this week when misfiring striker Fernando Torres was quoted as criticising Chelsea's "older" players as "very slow". While the Blues boss handled it impressively, acting to quickly diffuse the situation, Leboeuf insists there should not have been any controversy in the first place. The 1998 World Cup winner says he empathises with Torres, both in terms of what he was trying to say and also the risk he faces as a foreign player giving an interview.
"I have seen what people were trying to say and I think what he actually said was in fact true," Leboeuf said. "He was talking about Mata and saying that he would bring pace to a slow team and I have to agree with him. I don't think it was meant a criticism, I think it is just a fact. Many of the players at Chelsea are strong and physically imposing - pace is not their biggest strength. It is why they have bought Mata and it was a fair comment, no controversy at all.
"Giving interviews in another language is difficult because you are worried that you will be tricked into saying something, or that the translation will come across badly or find a weakness. The language barrier always makes thing hard and sometimes you just try to avoid the press altogether because you are afraid of being misinterpreted. I feel sorry for Fernando and others."
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