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Friday, November 25, 2011
ESPNsoccernet: November 24, 11:16 AM UK
Burning one's bridges

James Dall

Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds. Under the microscope this week: hopefully the non-sharpening of Roman Abramovich's axe at Chelsea, potential title candidates Tottenham, Stoke's stuttering ways, and 1-0 specialists Manchester United.

AVB: Dead man walking?

It was regrettable for Andre Villas-Boas, a 34-year-old whose age was the fixation upon his appointment as Chelsea manager, that his comments post Sunday's 2-1 Premier League defeat to Liverpool panged of the naive. "The owner didn't pay €15 million (in compensation) to get me out of Porto only to pay me another fortune just to let me go again." It seems that only Villas-Boas is oblivious of Roman Abramovich's track record: the well-off Russian having filed for Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink and Jose Mourinho's P45s without hesitation, for the compensation paid caused barely a ripple in an ocean of funds. The statistics for the Portuguese are damning. Already the Blues' porous defence has conceded 17 goals in 12 top flight matches - two more than Mourinho's title-winning side did in the entirety of the 2005-06 campaign. And the weekend's slump marked back-to-back league losses at Stamford Bridge for the first time in the Abramovich era - firsts of a negative variety spark murmurs of an axe being sharpened. With Wolverhampton Wanderers next up this Saturday, thrice anguish couldn't really happen, could it? Worryingly, such is the extent of the problems - exasperated by a last minute loss in the Champions League at Bayer Leverkusen - it could. Right through the team there are wounds to pick at, and the scabs have shown little signs of healing. Tasked with rejuvenating the side, while also maintaining success, Villas-Boas finds himself in a quagmire. Yet, for all the red flags, Villas-Boas should for now remain. Abramovich's recruitment of the ex-Porto coach in the summer demonstrated the Russian was experimenting with his Chelsea toy for the longer-term, and he should - for pride's sake, if anything - at least attempt to fulfil that goal, not wave the white flag. He must, too, resist the temptation to be reunited with the now available Guus Hiddink. The return of a former 'love' can often end in tears. Making the call to what is undoubtedly already a favourite in his mobile phone contacts ,'Hiddink, Guus', would surely symbolise that the end is nigh for Villas-Boas, even if he were only employed in an advisory capacity. Villas-Boas is aware he has work to do, and he should be allowed to do it.

Tottenham: Nowt wrong with ambition

Oh, they look very good indeed and have done for a while, in fact. But good enough for the title? Their manager, Harry Redknapp, upon his return from minor heart surgery, portrayed a somewhat confusing message when speaking after Monday's 2-0 win over Aston Villa, who offered little in terms of resistance. He said: "I don't want to say that we are going to win the league as everyone will get carried away." Harry appeared to choose his words wisely, looking to avoid hyperbole and the raising of expectations. But he wasn't quite finished: "The title is a possibility. It's not impossible... It's not impossible for anyone. If you keep winning matches and believe in yourself you'll do it." Ah. In fairness to Redknapp, it is hard for even the neutral not to get whisked away with optimism when discussing Tottenham right now. The swashbuckling approach that has yielded a return of 25 points from a possible 27 on offer is championship-winning form, if it were not for the unstoppable force of Manchester City. With that most excellent form, the bar has subsequently been raised. Indeed, Spurs, who before the season start were considered battlers for fourth, at present are favourites for at least third - the position they currently occupy while also boasting a game in hand. The championship, for this season at least, is likely a step too far, but there is no shame in ambition. And when better to aim high than when at the arguable peak of your powers?

Stoke City: Bad company

A fourth Premier League defeat on the spin and they had no Europa League tiredness to blame this time. Of course there is concern, with five losses suffered in their last six top flight outings. But perhaps the concern has been over-hyped, for after 12 games last season they had just a point more. The Potters have a full week to prepare for this weekend's home meeting against Blackburn, but thereafter the seemingly sapping Europe-domestic pattern resumes for two rounds more. And with Stoke currently top of Group E, it could be prolonged into the knockout phase, which gets under way in February. Tony Pulis is rightly under little pressure just now. The work he has done in recent years saves him of rash scrutiny, while it is also worth noting that this losing streak could have been halted had referee Mike Jones awarded at least one of the two stick-on penalties that QPR midfielder Joey Barton somehow managed to escape punishment for. However, there does appear to be something not quite right about Stoke at present, the club having managed as many goals as Wigan this season. To share a statistic with the basement dwellers fuels the paranoia and things need to turn around soon.

Manchester United: Food for thought

Maybe it is churlish to scrutinise three straight league wins. Yet, when you set such standards, a trio of 1-0s leave the observer unfulfilled. These Red Devils fans are used to their salivation being sustained, but of late they have recently dined on merely the bread and butter of football - a purpose has been served, but it's hardly been a satisfying or even memorable experience. Sir Alex Ferguson will unlikely care a jot, though. After six goals conceded at home to City, five clean sheets had been accrued, serving to re-instil confidence to the back five. The old adage of 'building from the back' is pertinent, and one Villas-Boas should have plastered on his office wall. But then this week Benfica happened. Two goals conceded at home halted their water-tight run, and with it United must go to Basel on December 7 and avoid defeat or otherwise join Stoke in the Europa League. While the emphasis placed on the final Group C game is a nuisance, the Red Devils can take heart from a relatively comfortable December fixture list, with games against Aston Villa and Wolves sandwiching their Swiss trip - compared to rivals City, who must travel to Chelsea after playing Bayern Munich. United have made a simple group look difficult, and, in spite of Ferguson's brave face on Tuesday, he must be scratching his head at how it came to this.
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