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Feb 11, 2012

Villas-Boas hits rock bottom

While one era for Chelsea ended unceremoniously at Everton, another deteriorated ignominiously on their return. A third successive league defeat at Goodison Park raises questions about how long Roman Abramovich's itchy finger can stay off that well-worn trigger. Andre Villas-Boas' reign has been troubled, but this was a new low.

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It was both predictable and unpopular when Chelsea gracelessly dismissed Carlo Ancelotti at the foot of a flight of stairs in Goodison Park in May 2011. Fast forward nine months and his replacement endured another form of indignity at Everton. Not from Chelsea's powerbrokers, but from their public. When Villas-Boas removed Michael Essien for Florent Malouda, the supporters serenaded him with "you don't know what you're doing". Those sentiments were expressed again, and rather louder, when Juan Mata, the sole source of invention in a dismal display, was replaced.

"It is part of the job," said Villas-Boas. It is, at least, when designer manager starts to resemble a rookie parachuted into the impossible job, when Chelsea are devoid of the resolve and ruthlessness that characterised their great sides, when a coach hired after winning the Europa League appears on course to return to the Champions League's unloved sibling with his new employers.

If the supporters are questioning Villas-Boas' position, they are probably not alone. Roman Abramovich's presence at Chelsea's Cobham training ground has ominous undertones when results are not forthcoming. And, with only two wins in 10 league games, they are not. Moreover, as Villas-Boas accepted, this was a landmark display. "This was our worst game of the season in every sense," he said. Thus, too, it was the poorest of his reign. There were no excuses, no crumbs of comfort. "In our performance we were short of anything positive," he added.

Nor was it a needlessly downbeat assessment. With the possible exception of Petr Cech, fault could be found with each department of the Chelsea team. Most striking, in a clash of anarchy against organisation, was the freeform approach to defending. With David Luiz adopting a roaming brief, Ashley Cole advancing on the left flank and Jose Bosingwa acting more as right winger than right back, there were times when Branislav Ivanovic appeared a one-man rearguard. Essien spent much of the match covering for his wandering colleagues in defence. His reward was to be replaced.

In a midfield where Chelsea are missing a player they never even signed - how the slick Luka Modric would benefit this side - they were uninventive and overpowered by Marouane Fellaini. And in attack, there was Fernando Torres. The £50 million man represents an easy target now but, bereft of confidence and out of luck, he has gone for almost 21 hours of football and nearly four months without scoring. Outperformed and overshadowed by his Everton counterpart Denis Stracqualursi, his most notable contribution at Goodison Park was to be cautioned for fouling Steven Pienaar.

The South African ensured there was one happy return to Merseyside. Making his second home debut for Everton, the on-loan Tottenham man excelled for both of his employers. His was an immediate impact, an emphatic finish following a fortunate deflection into his path as Frank Lampard challenged Tim Cahill. "You would have come here and clapped him," said Moyes. Plenty of Merseysiders did.

They cheered him, too, along with Goodison's new folk hero. Stracqualursi's ungainly effectiveness was apparent against Manchester City and again on this occasion. The difference was that this time he allied persistent running with a goal, his first in the Premier League, after incisive excellence from Landon Donovan.

It earned him a touching tribute from Moyes. "He is old fashioned," said the Scot. "When I played there were lots of that type of centre forward, a little bit huff and puff and not pleasing to the eye but by the end he wore them down. He's got an iron lung."

A club revitalised by their January dealings, Everton have iron men all over the pitch, physically tough figures whose constant commitment brought a deserved win. It was a triumph, too, of stability. Moyes, that wonderful advert for continuity, faced a seventh Chelsea manager and overcame him admirably.

His public remain grateful, his expertise unquestioned. While one manager got a vote of no confidence from the fans, the other was saluted in song. And while Villas-Boas' position seems more precarious, Everton's ever-present on the touchline can navigate the steep stairs and cramped corridors of Goodison Park with renewed vigour.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Pienaar - The goal was obviously crucial, but Pienaar's performance was outstanding. The South African showed why his left-sided partnership with Leighton Baines is among the best in the country. Chelsea struggled whenever he ran at them, and collected two cautions for trying to halt him.

EVERTON VERDICT: Not for the first time, they are rallying in the second half of the season. This was as impressive as beating Manchester City in their last home game and, in both matches, they have defended terrifically well. The worry is that the creativity came from the ever-impressive Donovan and Pienaar, who are both on loan. Money, as ever, is in short supply and Everton will look a lesser side when both return to their parent clubs.

CHELSEA VERDICT: Really poor. Manchester United's three-goal comeback last week appears to have dented morale and, while there is the need to look to the future, in the short term, they could benefit from the return of John Terry and Didier Drogba to stiffen the spine of the side. Gary Cahill, who was left on the bench, must feel his new manager does not rate him while another underused signing, Romelu Lukaku, was the only one who came close to scoring in his cameo.

NOT QUITE TRUE: As they often do, the Chelsea fans - before disagreeing with Villas-Boas - launched into a chorus of: "There's only one England captain". Actually there isn't one at the moment. A more topical variant would at least have had a novelty value.

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