A tumultuous week of European football has left much to ponder. After all the early season talk of a power switch to the north of England from the capital, the Champions League has given the surprising score: London 2, Manchester 0.
Manchester United were drawn in a group that looked so easy it was as if they had been given automatic entry to the knockout rounds.
Instead, they are consigned to the Europa League no one cares about, eliminated at the hands of Basel, hardly a European giant. And Arsenal, the early season strugglers, cruised through and could afford to field a reserve side for the trip to Athens.
On Monnight, the Blue sides of London and Manchester meet, this time in the Premiership.
This is a real test of Andre Villas-Boas’s claims about his Stamford Bridge team and the likely sustainability of their challenge for the Premiership title and of the current state of play at table-topping Manchester City.
Villas-Boas certainly came out fighting after the 3-0 Chelsea win over Spanish side (and real threat) Valencia sealed qualification to the Champions League knockout phase.
One thing is for certain, Villas-Boas is no coward. He was brave enough to leave out Frank Lampard from a Champions League game, when fit and available; this is the first time this has happened since September 2003 – that’s a long time without being dropped from the team.
The risks can hardly be over-emphasised. If Chelsea hadn’t got through this would have been without Lampard, whose record of 20 goals in 81 games in the Champions League is impressive indeed.
Settled for Drogba as striker
In Lampard’s place the beginnings of a new Chelsea midfield were seen. The young player from Barcelona Oriol Romeu was very impressive in a midfield holding role, despite being just 20 years old. He seemed to form a powerful combination with Ramires and Raul Meireles.
But it wasn’t just the new boys who did well. The catalyst for the win with two goals and an assist was Didier Drogba, now 33. It looks as if Villas-Boas has finally settled on the Ivorian as his number one striker and not the very expensive but woefully out of form Fernando Torres.
The other part of the Chelsea team that has been subject to criticism is the defence. The Villas-Boas-preferred system seems to be for his defenders to push up towards the halfway line. This is an attacking style, but it requires quick defenders to stop attackers from getting behind them and having a free run at goal.
Some opponents have exposed Chelsea’s tactic with the speed of their play; this was notably the case when Arsenal won 5-3 at Stamford Bridge, with John Terry made to look extremely foolish by Robin van Persie.
Terry isn’t the only defender to be shown up like this by Van Persie in 2011. But a change in tactics brought success against Valencia.
Chelsea defended deeper (that is, nearer to their own goal), and Terry was immaculate and his partner David Luiz much improved.
If Villas-Boas showed his good side in his team selection and the way he set his side up against Valencia, his performance after the game showed that he is still a young man in need of experience.
There was laughter in the press room at Stamford Bridge as the watching reporters listened to an outburst from the Portuguese manager. He spoke of “persecution” from the press.
Indeed, he has had a lot of criticism recently. But this has been due to Chelsea’s poor run of games, not because of some personal campaign against Chelsea. What the watching press has seen is a team that is ageing, that cannot easily recapture past glories and has been losing a large number of games.
Spoken too soon
Whatever, it may be that Villas-Boas has spoken too soon when he gives a triumphal performance in public. The game against Valencia was a good one, but the previous weekend’s 3-0 victory against Newcastle was flattering to the Blues.
It might have been so different if Newcastle’s back four hadn’t been depleted by injuries or if Luiz had been dismissed, as he should have been, for fouling when the last defender.
Monday night will be a different matter. The Premier League leaders Manchester City come to Stamford Bridge. They may have been eliminated from the Champions League but, unlike their Manchester neighbours United, City can at least point to a tough group, containing German, Italian and Spanish opponents in mitigation. And City gained enough points to qualify in most groups.
In contrast to their variable European form, City’s performances domestically have been terrifyingly good. No one seems able to stop them.
The question is being asked increasingly in hope rather than expectation, as to how long this will last.
Some thought that the early season defeat at Bayern Munich, and the Tevez non-appearance affair, would have an effect. Others thought that the loss at Napoli would affect them.
But City’s togetherness as a squad seems in contrast to the predicted spoilt-child behaviour of a collection of highly-paid superstars assembled quickly into a squad.
So far, Roberto Mancini’s men have overcome every Premiership challenge. Even their hardest game to date, the visit to Anfield, was a draw on the day that Manchester United were held at home by the same Newcastle side that Manchester City before them and Chelsea after them had beaten by handsome scorelines.
So, one of two teams full of energy is likely to be halted this evening. Neither side will be happy with a draw that may result. And a defeat for the home side would be “a slap in the face” regarding Chelsea manager Villas-Boas. Only this time it would be the reporters doing the slapping, not the manager.
When not thinking about football, Guy Maughfling (Facebook Group: “Premiership Chat”) is a director in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Advisory business in East Africa. The views expressed here are his own.