x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Ferguson beats new Chelsea manager Villas-Boas in the generation game

Manchester United win 3-1 at Old Trafford and while Andre Villas-Boas did not do much wrong in terms of tactics and team selection, he still came second best.

Fernando Torres missed an open goal against Manchester United
Fernando Torres missed an open goal against Manchester United
In the history of football management, 1977 has tended to go down as the year Bob Paisley won the first of his three European Cups. Liverpool's cardigan-wearing coach has long since shuffled off this mortal coil, and it is now a profession of altogether snappier dressers.

Yet 1977 is increasingly relevant. The precocious Andre Villas-Boas was born a few months after Alex Ferguson - the knighthood was still 22 years away - won his first trophy. Engineering St Mirren's promotion to Scotland's top division was the precursor to a remarkable, seemingly never-ending career.

Ferguson is now taking on managers young enough to be his grandchildren and winning the generation game as well as the football match.

Villas-Boas, the 14th different Chelsea coach to line up against Ferguson, discovered that the man who finished off Carlo Ancelotti - twin defeats in the Champions League and the Premier League made the Italian's exit inevitable - retains his ruthless streak.

In a match of Chelsea chances and Manchester United goals, Villas-Boas got much right, except the result.His half-time introduction of Nicolas Anelka, for instance, paid immediate dividends when the Frenchman's first contribution was to send Fernando Torres scurrying clear to score. His selection of the Spaniard, a decision that backfired when Ancelotti picked the striker at Old Trafford, was a qualified success that is unlikely to be remembered as such.

One excruciating moment, when the £50 million (Dh289.9m) striker missed an open goal, overshadowed just a second strike in 24 games by the record buy, along with signs of renewed sharpness.

Villas-Boas's second-half solution - go gung-ho - entailed bold decision-making, with Frank Lampard abruptly removed, and could have worked with finer finishing.

His side had created the majority of the first-half opportunities, but went in trailing three goals behind. "Three-nil at half time was crazy," Villas-Boas said.

Chelsea's defensive shortcomings helped explain it. Chris Smalling went unchecked as he headed in Ashley Young's free kick, Nani was allowed to run unimpeded before arrowing in an unstoppable shot and, after Phil Jones's barnstorming run forward, John Terry's interception bounced off Nani and into the path of Wayne Rooney to slot home to make it 3-0 at half time.

England's captain and talisman were linked again. A 10th goal in five games beckoned for the United top scorer when he approached the penalty spot, only to lose his balance and sense of direction, just as Terry had in the Champions League final three years ago.

Yet the relevant comparison is between the forwards.

"The worst things happen to the best strikers in the world," Villas-Boas said. There is a difference: Torres's misses come at a cost, Rooney's do not. Ferguson could laugh off his striker's slip; Villas-Boas has to reflect upon what might have been.

"The 3-2 [as it would have been had Torres scored] could have given us a little bit of a mental edge for the last 10 minutes," the Portuguese said.

What did transpire was a first league defeat since his Academica de Coimbra side were beaten by Benfica in April 2010 and a five-point deficit to United. "It is very, very early," Villas-Boas said.

Too early, perhaps: his Chelsea side are still a work in progress. He is experimenting on the job, trying out Juan Mata as, he termed it, a No 10, in the second half, and altering both personnel and tactics.

The mindset, too, is subject to a rethink. Once Chelsea seemed to pursue 1-0 wins; Villas-Boas's team appear likelier to triumph 3-2. "We have to please the fans when we play," he said, not the words a disciple of Jose Mourinho automatically utters.

"We attacked as much as we could. It was something compulsory for us."

It is Chelsea, but not as we know it. They were too open, though the same criticism could be applied to United. Yet in the meeting of master and apprentice, one of the lessons was that Ferguson shows an abiding ability to win without some of his premier players.

Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic remain injured and United's defence is young; there are raw materials to a roaring side. As a result, United equalled a club record of 18 successive home league wins that dates back 106 years.

It is one of the few statistics that predates even Ferguson's reign. Rather than 1977, they are transported back to 1905.