It is not too often that a top-five Premier League clash can be mistaken for the climax of a good Wes Anderson movie, but this weekend's Tottenham-Chelsea derby comes close. The fixture feels less a game of football and more like the finale of "Rushmore," as a valiant yet misunderstood hero leads his team in an ambitious struggle for redemption against a band of bullies who had humiliated him just seven months ago.
Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas can seem like the type of exaggerated, romantic character only Anderson could conjure. As goal-oriented as "Rushmore's" Max Fischer ("My top schools where I want to apply to are Oxford and the Sorbonne. My safety's Harvard.") and even more precocious than Sam in "Moonlight Kingdom" ("I love you but you don't know what you're talking about.") Born to an aristocratic bloodline as a descendant of the Baron of Paco de Vieira, AVB arrived at Chelsea in June 2011 as a coaching wunderkind, the culmination of an odyssey begun at the tender age of 21 when he had become the world's youngest ever international manager by leading the British Virgin Islands.
Villas-Boas' Chelsea experience turned out to be harrowing. The young coach was not just fired, he was dumped after being personally humiliated. Limping away, he was forced to watch as former right-hand man Roberto Di Matteo lead the team to the twin peaks of Champions League and FA Cup glory.
Chelsea arrive at White Hart Lane on Saturday as league leaders. In the week he turned 35, Villas-Boas has coyly attempted to play down any talk of exacting revenge, telling the press, "In the end there is one thing which has been to a certain extent blown out of proportion in some ways -- this is certainly not a personal matter." But the English Premier League is fast becoming the home of managerial double-speak where the opposite of what is stated is true. As Roberto Mancini demonstrated last season while persistently claiming Manchester City would not win the title, simply saying it does not make it so.
This, after all, is the same Villas-Boas who crushingly and candidly accused Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich of "broken promises" and "quitting on me" upon leaving. He's a man who had arrived in London with a reputation as a managerial prodigy after being mentored by Sir Bobby Robson and Jose Mourinho, then blazing down a managerial fast track by inheriting the reins at Porto FC. AVB had proceeded to canter to glory, conceding only 13 goals and winning the title by over 20 points over the course of an unbeaten season that was burnished by winning the Portuguese cup and the Europa League. Quite a feat by anyone's standards, let alone a 33-year-old whose top-flight coaching experience amounted to 23 previous games in the Portuguese Primeira Liga.
It took 256 days at Chelsea for all this to come undone, a spell that was symbolized by ridicule, rejection and mutiny. AVB began as a self-styled boy genius willing to do anything it took to convert the team to his system, including sleeping at the training ground in a Japanese-style pod. Charged with rejuvenating a creaky Chelsea squad, his efforts to coax his charges into committing to his "project" by playing a high defensive line and pressing game quickly alienated veterans John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Didier Drogba. Undermined by incessant anonymous leaks ("Andre Villas-Boas tells Chelsea stars: involve me in goal celebrations"), AVB was quickly left looking both stubborn and impotent. No longer a footballing wunderkind, more like Max Fischer after his grand plan to break ground on a world-class aquarium had imploded: spurned, bullied and utterly alone.
Most men would have disappeared to the ends of the earth after being run out of town. Villas-Boas is clearly not most men. Within four months he was back, joining Spurs, the very team who had been gazumped of their fourth-place right to Champions League football by Chelsea's unexpected European Cup success. What could be a more perfect home for a man who has everything to prove than a team with a gigantic chip on its shoulder, matched only perhaps by the circumference of Villas-Boas' own? Yet to suppress the stench of recent failure and overcome the media's lingering attachment to his predecessor, Harry Redknapp, required a bold display of courage, resilience and self-confidence.
It was to become worse before it would getting better. Villas-Boas had to overcome a stumbling start. An opening loss to Newcastle, followed by two unconvincing draws, led to his being booed off the field by the doubting Tottenham faithful as he struggled to contain the potentially toxic goalkeeping duel between the ageless Brad Friedel and new arrival Hugo Lloris.
Villas-Boas remained calm and his team responded, rattling off four consecutive victories, including a 3-2 win over Manchester United, the team's first win at Old Trafford since AVB was 12. Villas-Boas has steadfastly reinvented both his own image and the pattern of the team, surviving the defection of Luka Modric to Real Madrid, utilizing Moussa Dembele and Sandro as bruising ball-winners, and investing faith in 20-year-old Steven Caulker, who has excelled in the center of defense.
Against Chelsea, AVB will encourage Clint Dempsey to chisel chances from an advanced midfield role and test a Chelsea backline shorn of John Terry -- who will begin his four-match ban -- while hoping Gareth Bale's swashbuckling threat will disrupt the complex midfield interplay of Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard.
Chelsea may be undefeated, but RDM has now been charged with beautifying Chelsea's power. There can be no finer way for AVB to sully that progress than by winning the battle of coaching acronyms and inflicting a first defeat on his opponents. Villas-Boas may claim he does not care about revenge, but to win on Saturday will be to live out the words spoken by another Wes Anderson-esque outsider cursed for being smarter than all those around him, Tyrion Lannister of "Game of Thrones," when he promised an adversary: "Give me time. A day will come when you think yourself safe and happy, and suddenly your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth, and you'll know the debt is paid."
<em>Roger Bennett is a columnist for ESPN, and with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland's "Men In Blazers." Follow him on Twitter: @rogbennett.</em>