Monday, December 12, 2011
Right result, yet confused philosophy
Kevin Palmer, Stamford Bridge
Andre Villas-Boas may believe victory against previously unbeaten City was another jab to the glass chins of his critics, but those who questioned the over-sensitive Chelsea manager will claim this match provided the most compelling evidence yet that they were right all along.
There has been a degree of bemusement among the press pack who were left smarting after Villas-Boas' vicious verbal attack on their reporting following his side's Champions League victory against Valencia last Wednesday, with the youthful coach opting to alienate the media rather than get them on-side in his hour of need.
Most of those who populate this Stamford Bridge press room do not feel the criticism directed at Villas-Boas has been anything but justified. After a run of results that would have left any coach in his position in a perilous position, vindication has been served by the fact that his side have now started to find their feet again by changing a game plan that so many had suggested would never reap rewards.
The high defensive line to which Villas-Boas was so devoted had looked a disastrous policy given the players he had at his disposal, with John Terry and David Luiz looking vulnerable at the heart of the defence time and time again, yet Villas-Boas had seemed determined to stick to the tactical plan that was not working.
Then, suddenly, his side changed their mindset against Valencia last Wednesday, and a deeper defensive line looked solid as Chelsea produced their most polished display of the season to secure a place in the last 16 of the Champions League.
With that in mind, all were surprised when Terry and his central defensive partner Branislav Ivanovic were ordered to return to the doomed AVB "philosophy" at the start of this vital game against a rampant Manchester City.
As Mario Balotelli waltzed through Chelsea's, yes, high defensive line to open the scoring after just two minutes, the mystery over why Chelsea had gone back to their least successful tactical plan deepened and in the 15 minutes that followed, City could have taken this game away from Villas-Boas.
The league leaders looked ready to tear their rivals to shreds in a game dubbed the "Oil Firm Derby" until someone decided the moment had come to halt the tide towards the Chelsea goal and place a much-derided strategy back in the box for another week at least.
Terry, Ivanovic, Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa slowly retreated back to the comfort of the edge of their box and with that, the momentum of the game shifted.
Raul Meireles' 34th minute equaliser confirmed that Chelsea were working their way back into this game. With City now struggling to penetrate a more organised, compact line in front of them, Villas-Boas' side always looked the more likely winners as they joined the stormy weather in gathering momentum as the second half progressed.
Referee Mark Clattenburg could have dismissed already-booked City skipper Vincent Kompany when he hacked down Juan Mata seven minutes into the second half, but team-mate Gael Clichy did not escape when hauled down the lively Ramieres moments later. With that, City appeared to be there for the taking. So it proved.
The impressive Sturridge was always the likeliest to create Chelsea's winning goal and as his curling effort forced Joleon Lescott to raise his hands in a bid to block the ball, the penalty was correctly awarded by Clattenburg.
Juan Mata seemed eager to take the spot kick, but he was never likely to take the opportunity away from a No.8 who has taken penalties for Chelsea for the best part of a decade. Frank Lampard had only been on the field for ten minutes after starting on the bench once again, but he lashed home his effort with relish and the celebrations that followed summed up the importance of this triumph.
Indeed, the atmosphere around the Bridge as the final whistle blew was as vocal as many had witnessed in some time, with the often diluted Chelsea fans joining their players in a jubilant toast to a win that meant a great deal. Despite this delight, Villas-Boas still seemed agitated as he met his tormentors in his press conference.
"I think we can say our title challenge is back on again now," he said, with a smirk. "Our objective was to shorten the lead at the top and to do that, we needed to beat City. We adapted to the circumstances, we felt how the game was going and deserved to get the win."
When asked about his side's move to drop deeper after their uncertain start, Villas-Boas seemed to intriguingly hint it was his players who had taken the decision to switch to a deeper setting.
"In the first minutes, we suffered a lot and the players felt they needed to adjust," he stated. "We started with a medium block defensively, but it was difficult for us and the players stepped back. Then they felt the confidence coming back to them. They were brave to adapt and we showed good strength of character to win this game."
City boss Roberto Mancini was philosophical as he summed up his side's first domestic defeat since last May. "It was very difficult for us after the sending off and I'm also disappointed that the referee missed a clear penalty for us in the first half," stated Mancini, correctly highlighting a mistake by referee Clattenburg, who failed to decide on a spot-kick when David Silva was kicked inside the box by Bosingwa.
"He could see their penalty and yet he missed our penalty. That changed the game," said Mancini. "We are still on the top of the table and it was always possible that we could lose one game. You could see Chelsea were very happy to beat us and that shows that we are viewed as a top team now. Hopefully we can go another 14 games without losing again. That would be nice."
City have the class and quality to bounce back from this setback, but it is clear from Villas-Boas' comments that he and his players are yet to settle on a philosophy that can consistently give them the results they desire.
And if this brilliant victory does not give the Chelsea manager a clue about the direction he needs to head in, nothing will.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Daniel Sturridge
A threat down the right flank against his former side, Sturridge was crucial in creating both of Chelsea's goals. His importance is growing for Andre Villas-Boas.
NO TOUCHLINE PLAN: Villas-Boas hit back at newspaper reports that he has ordered his players to celebrate with him after they score goals.
"It was an unfortunate story and wrong. It was ridiculous," he stated.
TUNNEL STORM: Rumours abounded that there had been a confrontation between Chelsea and City players in the tunnel after the game. More may emerge on what went on in the coming days.
CHELSEA VERDICT: Villas-Boas clearly believes employing a high defensive line can inject some attacking verve into Chelsea, but they are more comfortable playing deeper and proved it in this game once more. AVB's initial tactical plan would not have produced this win.
CITY VERDICT: Their failure to hurt Chelsea once they had altered their defensive tactics was a point of concern for Roberto Mancini. It will be interesting to see how they respond to this setback.