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Dec 14, 2011

Revival yet clear faultlines at Chelsea

The sight of John Terry delivering a Churchillian on-pitch speech before Chelsea's victory against Manchester City was familiar. He had performed the same function just five days previously, prior to a crucial win against Valencia.

Terry perhaps believes he has redefined the idea of doing his talking on the pitch but while Chelsea have revived their campaign with three vital wins a note of discord still rings from Stamford Bridge. "Team spirit is an illusion only glimpsed in victory," as former Spurs and Barcelona striker Steve Archibald once said, though he pointedly did not include managerial relations in that classic idiom of footballing cynicism.

"Andre Villas-Boas is a friend to the team and to every player," said one of his players, but that player was Helton, FC Porto's goalkeeper and that was ahead of Dublin's Europa League final in May, an already distant time of harmonic happiness that must conjure nostalgia in Chelsea's manager.

With Nicolas Anelka heading to China, Alex banished from first-team duties before a January exit, and Frank Lampard claiming he has not been given the reasons for his dropping from the two most crucial matches of the season so far, Villas-Boas has clearly not only fallen out with Gary Neville.

"This is not a one-man show," said Villas-Boas himself in Dublin, as journalists quizzed a nascent coaching talent who had guided Porto to an unbeaten Portuguese title, and would soon lift the club's fourth European trophy. He might well say the same about life at Chelsea. In the aftermath of his team ending Manchester City's unbeaten run, Villas-Boas all but admitted that his defenders had altered his favoured 'high-line' philosophy of their own accord.

It is not difficult to surmise which of his defenders could have effected this change. Mario Balotelli's early goal had seen a beleaguered Terry turned by Sergio Aguero high in his own half. Soon after, Terry and Branislav Ivanovic were to be found camped in front of Petr Cech while Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa's ventures into the City half had the look of being strictly rationed. It was a strategy that played to the strengths of Chelsea's onfield leader, while their manager could only resume his stock crouched position and twitch in exasperation as victory was achieved almost in spite of him.

"It was not the best in terms of what we are trying to achieve, but the best in terms of spirit," Villas-Boas had said after victory against Valencia was achieved by similar means, before describing his team's achievement as "a win of personal values and human values" rather than his chosen "philosophy". That philosophy appears in diametric opposition to those of the players still said to boss the dressing room.

While Villas-Boas has been delivering a "slap in the face" to journalists, somebody has been telling tales. Twice, Villas-Boas has been forced to react to press leaks from the Cobham training ground he has challenged Neville to find his way to. And his denials have not entirely convinced, either. In dismissing reports of asking players to celebrate goals with him, he said: "I told the players that when we score a goal, the bench lives the same emotions. The bench competes with them, with the same desire. We are for them, we want to play but we can't play."

It was a rebuttal with something of David Brent about it, and there is a notable edge of middle-management babble to his public pronunciations. It is little wonder that the unreconstructed likes of Terry may not have warmed to him. The feeling appears mutual.

Didier Drogba's centre-forward wrecking-ball act against Valencia was damned with faint praise. "As long as he performs then perfect, but the other ones are there as well," said Villas-Boas in failing to supply a ringing endorsement. The laziest possible comparison to make when mentioning Villas-Boas is to Jose Mourinho, yet his predecessor usually gave the impression of enjoying the moment of victory, and of sharing it with his players. The same could also be said of Carlo Ancelotti, and definitely about the lurking-with-possible-intent nemesis of Guus Hiddink. Villas-Boas would surely flinch at being compared to Avram Grant yet there have been marked similarities between the pair's respective reigns.

Villas-Boas' Grant-like picking of fights with the media has been curious in the light of his Dublin admission that "I would have been a journalist" had Bobby Robson not have given him his chance in football. It is suggested that pressure has been removed from his players by "AVB" and his stated belief of "continuous persecution", but were he still around, Robson might well have offered from bitter experience that a manager's life is easier with the press on his side.

And the same is true of Chelsea's senior players cabal. They remain influential to the extreme that Terry often acts like a man with his eye on the position that Andre Villas-Boas currently occupies, if indeed he doesn't already think he is more important than him.

"I give them room to express themselves because that's how they develop. I promote their talent and let them make their own decisions. There are no dictators," said Villas-Boas in May. But that was before he made the reacquantaince of Terry and friends. Three excellent results have rebuilt a season's expectations, yet the success of Villas-Boas is too closely interlinked with a Chelsea set all too comfortable with calling their own tune.

When such an uneasy alliance is apparent through the prism of victory, then a major faultline is still apparent at Chelsea.

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