By Wayne Veysey at Stamford Bridge
Andre Villas-Boas’ Chelsea reign will not be judged on how comprehensively his team sweep aside opponents as meek as Belgian champions Genk.
But 12 matches into a tenure that has resulted in only a single defeat, at the cathedral of the Premier League champions, the club’s decision to show such faith in a manager only marginally older than two of his star players is looking a sound one.
To paraphrase the Portuguese, he has not done anything special. But what he has done is kick the era of the Chelsea untouchables into the stands and made far wider use than any of his predecessors of a squad groaning with A-list boys in blue.
Take the 18-man matchday squad against Genk on Wednesday night. Villas-Boas felt confident enough to tackle the weakest link in Group E without the safety nets of Didier Drogba and skipper John Terry, both of whom were rested ahead of Sunday’s derby against QPR at Loftus Road.
Terry looked relaxed as he loafed through the media mixed zone afterwards in his civvies but even ‘Mr Chelsea’ might reflect that no player, other than perhaps goalkeeper Petr Cech, is bulletproof in the current set-up.
Claudio Ranieri was derided as the ‘Tinkerman’, but the early signs are that Villas-Boas will rotate his players with as much frequency as the first of Roman Abramovich’s seven managers, and to a level no occupier of the toxic Chelsea tracksuit has done since the Italian. ‘Andre the Agitator’ might be an appropriate moniker.
|FERNANDO TORRES' KEY MATCH EVENTS|
Only Frank Lampard of the front six that convincingly defeated Everton 3-1 last Saturday was retained for the visit of Genk, with Mikel, the injured Ramires, Daniel Sturridge, Drogba and Juan Mata making way for Oriel Romeu, Raul Meireles, Nicolas Anelka, Florent Malouda and Fernando Torres, who still has one game to run on a three-match domestic suspension. At the back, David Luiz replaced Terry.
It worked a treat. Chelsea carved open Genk at will, were 2-0 up after 11 minutes, 4-0 ahead three minutes before the interval and were so utterly in control that Villas-Boas withdrew Ashley Cole at half-time and Lampard and Bosingwa midway through the second half.
Villas-Boas has inherited a strong squad, one which was embellished by the summer arrivals of one known Premier League quantity in Meireles and three hugely promising ones in Mata, Romeu and Romelu Lukaku.
He might be fortunate to have, as David Moyes succinctly put it last weekend, £400m worth of talent at his disposal but the signs are that he is juggling it well.
Pertinently, the squad hierarchy is not as clear-cut as it was in the past. Lampard and Drogba, two of the mainstays of the Abramovich era, have both suffered the rare fate of being dropped for key games this season. Terry’s place is more secure but he has been left out of two of the three Champions League matches, while others like Anelka, Luiz and Malouda have had to wait their turn for first-team action.
Managing the players’ workload, keeping them fresh and ensuring there is no repeat of the anterior cruciate ligament injury suffered by Michael Essien in pre-season is at the heart of the manager’s forward planning.
The squad has a strong spine, competition for places everywhere bar goalkeeper and left-back and enough strength in depth for Villas-Boas to be confident that he can add another trophy to a cabinet that has been well stocked in recent years.
His mission, the one accepted when Abramovich agreed to buy out the £13m clause in Villas-Boas’ Porto contract, is to make Chelsea masters of all they survey. Adding to the three Premier League gongs of the Russian’s eight-year ownership of the club is one ambition, as is lifting the Champions League trophy that has become the club’s holy grail.
Strong challenges in the two main competitions would be Abramovich’s minimum expectation, one that would have been only increased by Torres’ rejuvenation.
The striker hinted that he might be out of the doldrums that had suffocated him for most of 2011 with reminders of his potency against United and Swansea last month.
By following up those two goals with a superbly taken double against Genk, one a classic side-footed finish across the goalkeeper and the other a smart header, and marrying it with a performance laced with menace and movement, Torres showed he is getting back to the lethal striker of old.
Only perhaps with the failure to grasp a simple early chance, which he steered against the post, did the Spaniard hint at the trauma he has suffered since swapping a red shirt for a blue one in January.
Otherwise, Torres looked more at home than at any time since his move from Liverpool, perhaps not surprising given the word-perfect versions of You’ll Never Walk Alone sung by the vocal visiting supporters.
Abramovich thought he was buying a centre-forward that would help Chelsea dominate at home and abroad when he broke the British transfer record.
With the player’s fragile confidence now finally restored and his body in good working order, it does not appear such a wanton waste of a billionaire’s money.
Chelsea look well placed to fire on all cylinders as they prepare for tougher assignments ahead.