Didier Drogba rode to the rescue of Andre Villas-Boas on a crucial night at Stamford Bridge.
Drogba’s match-winning turn against Valencia, with two goals and an assist, was just repayment to his manager for giving the Ivorian exactly what he craves: centre-stage.
Drogba eased Chelsea nerves on a night when anything but a win or goaless draw would have sent the Blues crashing out of the Champions League at the first hurdle. A 3rd minute strike into the far corner after a pull-back from the effervescent Juan Mata got Chelsea off to a tremendous start, and with Villas-Boas playing a defensive setup, the Spaniards never looked like getting back into the game.
Drogba followed up his early effort by sending Ramires through for Chelsea’s second on 22 minutes, before combining again with Mata to seal victory on 76.
In a performance that was reminiscent of the Mourinho epoch, a time when Drogba strutted imperiously around Premier League defences and prayed upon weak-willed opponents, the striker was deserving of the rapturous ovation awarded him by the adoring Chelsea faithful when he was taken off late on.
Whether Drogba had such a performance in him anymore was up for debate before this game, but huge credit must go to Villas-Boas for bringing the best out of Chelsea’s fourth-highest all-time leading goalscorer.
In choosing to bench the man directly above Drogba in that list, Frank Lampard, as well as £50 million pound man Fernando Torres, the Blues boss made a brave team selection which aimed to tighten up a leaky backline.
Villas-Boas ordered his back four to drop deep, whilst shielding them with a strong and combative defensive midfield core in Romeu, Meireles and Ramires. It was a tactic which succeeded in squeezing the life out of Valencia, who had 67% of possession but rarely threatened to break through.
But for Chelsea, a team stripped of its creative heart, to pose any threat, Drogba had to step up in a big way. And step up he did. Running with power and purpose at a terrified Valencia defence, he caused plenty of problems for the opposition, whilst also retreating into midfield to collect long balls and bring wingers Sturridge and Mata into play.
Villas-Boas has clearly been stung by the criticism levied at Chelsea players and his own tactical ability in recent weeks, particularly in the wake of the 5-3 drubbing at home to Arsenal. Speaking at the post-match press conference, the Portugese hit back at the assembled journalists, saying of the negative comments ‘[it’s been] out of this world. Continuous aggression towards Chelsea. We have become a target for you guys and we accept that’.
But for all his apparent anger, the former Porto boss is adapting to circumstances and playing a clever game. Evoking the ‘us against the world’ attitude that served Jose Mourinho so well at the Bridge, and made him into a father figure to some of the players, Villas-Boas is keen to turn the trauma of the last few weeks to his advantage by forging a siege mentality amongst his squad.
However, two vital wins – last night’s and at the weekend against Newcastle – does little to hide the fact that Andre Villas-Boas is a man swimming desperately against the tide. Having inherited a squad of players not able to play the free-flowing, attacking football for which his Porto side became known and which he advocates, he will either have to continue to preach pragmatism over idealism for the rest of the season, or persuade Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich to give him a blank cheque for Christmas.
With the Russian already sceptical about Villas-Boas’s ability, and all too aware of the recent availability of personal favourite Guus Hiddink, the Portugese might have to prove himself with the resources presently at his disposal.
That means Drogba will become pivotal to Chelsea success this season, with Villas-Boas accepting that Fernando Torres does not suit the team’s style of play. Meanwhile, getting the players united behind him will be critical for his own survival.
Andre Villas Boas is battening down the hatches and preparing for a season-long storm. On the evidence of last night, he might just weather it.