x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Villas-Boas has point to prove as Tottenham take on Chelsea

The manager has to illustrate that his methods work, that he can coach players without alienating them, which led to his sacking at Stamford Bridge.

Both Gareth Bale, left, and Ramires have ensured Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea have pace in the midfield.
Both Gareth Bale, left, and Ramires have ensured Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea have pace in the midfield.

When Chelsea gaze at their trophy cabinet and reflect upon a season that ended up as the greatest in their history, the chances are that heroes spring to mind: Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Petr Cech, Ramires, Roberto Di Matteo.

Andre Villas-Boas does not figure in that list. If Di Matteo was the architect of the club's success, his Portuguese predecessor seemed more of a bulldozer, demolishing Chelsea's lofty ambitions and threatening to tear down their greatest team.

It leaves the new Tottenham Hotspur manager with a reputation to rebuild as he prepares for a first reunion with his former club.

If gratitude is in short supply, it is no surprise. Chelsea prospered despite Villas-Boas, not because of him. Their glory came after his dismissal. His departure was lamented by few.

But today is a first chance to alter opinions at Stamford Bridge.

While the clash of North and West London was a fierce enough rivalry without Chelsea's Champions League victory in May depriving Spurs of a place among the European elite and Tottenham appointing the manager their foes dismissed, there is an understandable focus on the touchline where Villas-Boas and the man who learnt from the mistakes he made, Di Matteo, meet.

Predictably, Villas-Boas has denied it is a revenge mission. Nevertheless, the subtext of his season is a quest for vindication.

The managerial wunderkind has to illustrate that his methods work, that he can coach players without alienating them.

For those who only paid passing attention to his achievements at Porto, he is viewed through the prism of failure at Chelsea.

It was a failure of man-management but also of a club who appointed a revolutionary manager while preserving the status quo, a powerful dressing room preferred.

Change was always dependent upon one man. Roman Abramovich belatedly implemented it this summer, 12 months too late for Villas-Boas, but after the Champions League provided the old guard with a last, and lasting, hurrah.

The irony is that the two teams who take the field at White Hart Lane today are both closer to the ideal Villas-Boas had than the Chelsea team he managed.

If passing and pressing are prominent parts of his ethos, he inherited a side that alternated between being direct and defensive.

They excelled at both to overcome Barcelona and Bayern Munich in last season's Champions League but now Di Matteo has become a pragmatic convert to entertainment. Chelsea top the league, a prolific team reinvented to satisfy the owner's quest for goals. They have been transformed by the transfer market.

And yet, while the delay allowed Drogba and his teammates to conquer Europe, the makeover could have happened sooner.

Di Matteo's, perhaps, is the team Villas-Boas envisaged a year ago with Juan Mata, his finest signing, joined by Eden Hazard and Oscar in a trio of classy creators, with attacking full-backs and a greater fluidity than Chelsea had displayed.

But Tottenham share similar characteristics. They, too, have pace on the flanks and attacking verve.

In contrast to Villas-Boas's ageing Chelsea charges, the athleticism and ability of Mousa Dembele and Sandro gives them an extra element in the centre of midfield.

They are the multidimensional players, equipped to rotate and run. A squad is being shaped according to his principles.

But a purist has shown moments of smiling pragmatism. If Villas-Boas's time at Chelsea proved one thing, it was that compromise can be beneficial.

Too inflexible then, he has made a concerted effort to be more amenable. His qualities as a coach were rarely in doubt. Developing people skills is the key as he seeks to win and win over with his Spurs.

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