The early kick off game this Saturday is the pick of the weekend’s fixtures as the English Premier League reconvenes after the two week international break. Table toppers Chelsea will pitch up at White Hart Lane with a four point lead at the head of the pack after an impressive start to the campaign. The latest team to pit their wits against the Blues are the in-form Tottenham Hotspur, led of course by the man unceremoniously dumped as Chelsea boss back in early March, Andre Villas-Boas.
The first meeting of AVB with his former employers adds a further ingredient to a fixture that has traditionally been a spicy affair between the two London clubs. Over the last two decades, Spurs’ record in these encounters has been poor to put it mildly having recorded only three league victories in this fixture, home or away, during the Premier League era. They have also had to watch on as Roman Abramovich’s wallet has bankrolled their fierce rivals’ success at home and abroad for the best part of the last decade.
Chelsea’s incredible Champions League victory in Munich which consequently earned them qualification for this year’s competition at the expense of Tottenham, must still surely be an open wound for the North Londoners. After such a great first half of the 2011-12 season where Spurs were quietly talked about as genuine title contenders (while AVB’s Chelsea toiled below them), the inability to hold their form and at least grab the third place which was theirs for the taking ultimately cost Harry Redknapp his position as manager.
It came as something of a surprise that Daniel Levy turned to the deposed Chelsea boss to replace the charismatic Redknapp at the helm. One of Harry’s most celebrated abilities was his man management skills and the relationship he had with his players. AVB’s time at Stamford Bridge was littered with stories and rumours of dressing room disharmony caused by his desire to stamp his authority on a famously powerful set of personalities. It’s fair to say he lost the co-operation of the big names which is always likely to happen when you tell most of them their time is up and that they were to be replaced. This must go down as a huge miscalculation on the part of AVB. He didn’t go into the Chelsea job without knowledge of the culture that existed amongst the team, having been a coach at Chelsea under Jose Mourinho before leading Porto to success. It is possibly because of his previous experience with the likes of Terry, Lampard and Drogba that he felt the need to fight fire with fire and not let himself suffer the same death by a thousand cuts suffered by previous incumbents of the Chelsea hotseat. The resulting disharmony was so evident in the performances produced by the Blues during AVB’s reign that his dismissal had become just a question of when rather than if.
AVB’s replacement, Roberto Di Matteo, is a man who has played with and dealt with some big personalities himself during his time as a cultured midfielder at Stamford Bridge. His own managerial credentials ( admirable jobs done at both MK Dons and West Brom) for such a high profile position in football may not have been as impressive as Saturday’s opposite number in the dugout, but one thing he realised when handed the reins was not to fight a battle he knew he couldn’t win. This decision to work with rather than against the dressing room mafia surely was the key to the dramatic upturn in Chelsea’s fortunes, winning the F.A. Cup before their success in Europe.
So what of the start made by AVB to his second appointment in the capital? Has he learned from the mistakes made last season?
The noises coming out from the dressing room so far have been largely positive and performances have gradually improved. Spurs find themselves going into Saturday’s encounter on a run of four consecutive league victories, including the thrilling win over Manchester United at Old Trafford, breaking a hoodoo going back over 20 years. Chelsea will undoubtedly pose the biggest test yet to AVB’s promising start at White Hart Lane.
Having spent big in the summer on players such as Belgian starlet Eden Hazard and Brazilian prospect Oscar to add to the already impressive squad at their disposal, the Blues have hit the ground running with incisive attacking play that has seen them take 19 points from a possible 21 and has led to the bookies slashing their prices for Chelsea to regain the trophy they last picked up in 2010.
The pre-match press build up will make the most of AVB’s previous Chelsea connection and it is to be expected that he will play a straight bat to such questions with the stock responses about it being ‘just another game’ or ‘three points is three points’. But for a man who was lambasted so fervently by fans and media and whose lofty reputation suffered as a consequence of his short time in charge of Chelsea, this is not just another game. Expect to see him on the touchline kicking every ball and kicking every player in blue.