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Aug 14, 2011

Early discomfort for young pretender

Perched right on the edge of his technical area, even crouching in a bid to be closer to the action, Andre Villas-Boas was a picture of hands-on management. Pointing and gesticulating, the former analyst looked for immediate opportunities to put his observations into practice while his team were subjected to a brutal barrage. It can't have been easy.

A few yards away, providing a contrast with the sharp-suited, fresh-faced Villas-Boas, baseball-capped veteran Tony Pulis barked orders. From all four sides, piercing whistles seemed deafening and, when they ceased, the people of the Potteries showed they had spent the summer devising hostile chants about Chelsea.

Welcome to Stoke, Andre. Welcome back to the Premier League. As Roman Abramovich's designer manager, the chic choice, arrived in a land of earthier values, the division's most intimidating ground lived up to its reputation. Only time will tell if the Portuguese prodigy does likewise but a manager who won 90 percent of his league games last season departed the Britannia Stadium after procuring a solitary point. Lenient refereeing, impressive goalkeeping and Stoke's characteristic obduracy made it a tough beginning.

Money, Chelsea are discovering, is not a magic wand. Immediate improvements are ever harder to effect. Abramovich's expensive playthings were in tandem, the £13 million manager and the £50 million forward. The choice of Fernando Torres ahead of Didier Drogba was the sort of decision that, according to interpretation, makes Villas-Boas either the owner's lackey or the daring advocate of a brave new era.

It was a stuttering start, even if both coach and centre-forward could be deemed a qualified success. Torres' tally in blue now stands at one goal in 19 games, but he was sharper than last season, feisty and determined even without much of a supply line. His best chance was self-made, but, in a throwback to the previous campaign, scuffed well after a mesmerising run. "He was very, very good," said Pulis. "He caused us all sorts of problems." The other manager was less effusive. "I don't like to individualise," said the self-christened 'Group One'.

His side emerged the stronger after his inaugural half-time team talk - perhaps, given the volume levels, the first chance his charges had to hear the manager - while his changes had an impact, too, with replacement Nicolas Anelka the closest to a winner. "I am happy for our transformation from first half to second half," Villas-Boas added. "The game was more in our control. It means against this powerful team that we were able to find spaces and create."

Despite his fluent English and familiarity with the Premier League, this was a culture shock nonetheless. "The amount of pushing and grabbing in the box is out of this world," he complained. Stoke's forcefulness and set-piece expertise has long generated grumbles, but this was a new gripe, and not merely because of the sense that John Terry may be less than angelic in that respect, too.

In any case, with Petr Cech dominant in defending the many dead-ball situations, Chelsea survived the early bombardment. Their manager had fewer issues with events in the other box although when Marc Wilson challenged Frank Lampard and Ryan Shawcross seemed to trip Torres, they could have had two penalties. Villas-Boas, who had not seen replays, objected to neither decision.

Nevertheless, Chelsea's time in the ascendant almost yielded a goal. To widespread surprise, the king of the square pass, John Obi Mikel unleashed a princely volley that Asmir Begovic tipped over. With Anelka's deft, dipping effort kept out by a combination of Begovic and his crossbar and Salomon Kalou's header held by the Bosnian, it amounted to a busy period for the Stoke goalkeeper. While his team tried, Villas-Boas tinkered. After beginning with a nod to the future, the 33-year-old had turned back to the past by the end, introducing first Anelka and then Drogba in a quest for a winner. The ambition was evident. Asked if this was a good result, he promptly disagreed.

"It's a point, not ideal, but not the end of the world," he said, already discussing a missed opportunity to move ahead of Arsenal and Liverpool in the embryonic table. "The challenge for us this year is to get back the Premier League title."

But the holy grail remains the Champions League. In the stands, a man who twice thwarted them was among the onlookers. Rafa Benitez is now among the ranks of the unemployed, a category that, at various points, has included many a Chelsea manager.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Asmir Begovic - The former Chelsea target denied them a point with two stunning saves in the second half. "He did alright," said a grinning Pulis.

STOKE VERDICT: On his league debut for the club, Jonathan Woodgate was an assured presence in the defence and Stoke's solidity is a reason why they should be comfortably in mid-table again. Yet with both Matthew Etherington and Rory Delap going off injured, the need for reinforcements further forward was emphasised. Focus on the physical can obscure the skill. Jonathan Walters, a graduate of League Two, fooled Terry with a delicate turn.

CHELSEA VERDICT: While Torres was the finest of the front trio, with neither Florent Malouda nor Salomon Kalou advancing his case, Ramires was much the most dynamic of the midfielders. It was a shame, though, that Josh McEachran, an unused substitute, was not selected. One interesting trend was that Anelka, generally used in the middle or on the right at Stamford Bridge, emerged as the left of the front trio.

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