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The Blues head to Italy with growing evidence of strain in the relationships between the manager and key players following the draw with Birmingham on Saturday

COMMENT
By Wayne Veysey at Stamford Bridge

Sat glumly in the dugout, Frank Lampard had a face of thunder. John Mikel Obi deliberately ignored his manager’s offer of a handshake.

As for Fernando Torres, observers of another poverty-stricken Chelsea display did not get the chance to see his pain. The woefully out of sync Spaniard was humiliatingly hooked at the half-way point.

Then there was the evidence, real or imagined, of player power. ESPN, who screened this FA Cup bout live, claimed they saw Didier Drogba host an impromptu team talk in the tunnel shortly before the start of the second half.

Andre Villas-Boas was visibly irked by this "ridiculous" suggestion but he did not deny that injured skipper John Terry veered considerably outside of his remit to visit referee Martin Atkinson’s room during the interval to complain about what Chelsea thought was Birmingham goalkeeper Colin Doyle’s first-half time wasting.

CHELSEA'S CUP CALAMATIES

JOHN OBI-MIKEL
4 "Summed up Chelsea's deficiencies with a ponderous performance in the midfield heartlands. Subbed early in the second half and noticeably ignored Villas-Boas' offer of a handshake when he walked to the dug-out."
 GARY CAHILL
5 "His second Chelsea start was as angst-ridden as his first. Booked for a clumsy challenge on Rooney and failed to offer much surety at the back."
FERNANDO TORRES
4 "Reached rock bottom in his Chelsea career with a hesitant display lacking in heart, desire and any kind of quality. Replaced by Drogba at half-time."
 RAUL MEIRELES
5 "Woeful for an hour before finally locating his passing sat-nav. Nevertheless, struggled to make use of the greater space he was given late on."

For Villas-Boas and his senior players, it was another afternoon of anger, frustration and, ultimately, considerable disappointment.

The tensions are not so much bubbling beneath the surface but erupting above it, both on the pitch and in the dugout.

Villas-Boas would not have needed to look far beyond the players he addressed before this demoralising prelude to Tuesday’s pivotal Champions League trip to Napoli to find the source of the leaked stories about the clear-the-air meeting hastily convened last Sunday on what was originally scheduled as a day off.

All the talk before, during and after this match was of the manager’s future. How long will he last? Another month? Week? Beyond the weekend? If it is a subject on the lips of supporters, journalists and pundits, you can bet it is a topic of discussion among those who can do the most about it – the players.

The man who writes the Stamford Bridge cheques – including signing off the ones amounting to a combined £28 million to pay off Carlo Ancelotti and hire Villas-Boas – was not present for this lunchtime reminder of how far his expensively assembled team has veered off course.

But it provided further evidence that Roman Abramovich’s empire is divided. Players, most tellingly the old guard who have been around for the majority of his eight-year ownership of the club, are unimpressed with the manager's methods.

Only Daniel Sturridge and, to a lesser extent, Branislav Ivanovic and Ramires delivered performances of the calibre needed to overcome a well-drilled Championship team who were far more resilient and imaginative than many thought they would be.

For all the excellence of Birmingham’s performance, which manager Chris Hughton reckoned to be their best of a season in which they retain strong promotion claims, it was miserable fare from the home team.

Torres and Mikel, both substituted within an hour, were the most obvious culprits but few in blue could hold their heads high. Raul Meireles’ display was as puzzling as his hairstyle, while Gary Cahill and David Luiz looked like they had met for the first time in the team coach on the way to Stamford Bridge. Even Juan Mata, the club’s outstanding player this season, had an off day, wasting a penalty and struggling to pick the lock in a second-tier defence.

Upon his return from Africa Cup of Nations duty, Didier Drogba tried his best to galvanise the team after being unleashed at the interval but even he caused few anxious moments.

Yet it is the relationship between Lampard and Villas-Boas that seems to define the difficulty the 34-year-old manager has in stamping his authority on a group of players used to the manager holding office but not power.

Oddly, given the circumstances of the game, Lampard was used only for the last seven minutes. Even bearing in mind his age and the importance of the Napoli match, this smacked as much of a clash of personalities and philosophies as it did of simple selection and tactics.

Lampard is not the player he was, the last 12 months has made that plain. But he has still contributed 11 goals – the same as equal leading scorer Daniel Sturridge – in all competitions and offers a cast-iron guarantee of penalty box menace.

The midfielder cut an unhappy figure a few rows back from Villas-Boas on Saturday. At one point, he headed off down the tunnel midway through the second half, sparking chat in the press box that he had thrown in the towel. He returned to the dugout a few minutes later but talk of a poor working relationship with the line manager who is only eight months his senior is well informed.

Speaking last Thursday Villas-Boas said his players "don’t have to back my project" as long as Abramovich does.

Those sound like the words of a man who thinks – or has been told – that his job is secure. But, ultimately, he will achieve little of note at Chelsea without the support of the players he demands carry out his instructions to the letter.

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