Villas-Boas must prove himself now

Updated: December 1, 2011, 10:04 AM ET
By Ian Darke |

The future of Chelsea's young manager Andre Villas-Boas probably hangs on the result of the Champions League decider against Valencia next week. Before that, he badly needs to avoid another damaging defeat in Saturday's game at Newcastle (live on ESPN2 and ESPN3 at 7.30 a.m. ET).

Andre Villas-Boas
AP Photo/Tim HalesAndre Villas-Boas could face a make-or-break week with clashes against Newcastle and Valencia. Can the embattled Prem manager save the Blues -- and himself?

Chelsea is a club in turmoil.

The owner, Roman Abramovich, has been fighting a legal battle in the English high court, captain John Terry is the subject of a police investigation into alleged racial abuse, and the team has made its worst start in eight years. Five of the past nine games in all competitions have been lost, and the club is out of the league cup and surely too far back already in the Premier League title race.

Unless AVB's side can get a win or a goalless draw in its final Champions League group game at home to Valencia on Tuesday, it will fail to advance to the knockout stages for the first time in the Abramovich era. It is hard to believe the trigger-happy Russian owner will continue with the Villas-Boas experiment if Chelsea fails in that pivotal game. That is, unless he has acquired a patience not previously evident.

With a growing belief that the club faces a struggle to attain the top-four finish to guarantee a return to the lucrative European competition next season, Abramovich will be tempted to bring back his old friend Guus Hiddink. Mind you, Hiddink's last two assignments have ended with Russia failing to qualify for the World Cup and Turkey missing out on the European championships.

So what has gone wrong at the Bridge?

For a start, a once-formidable defense has been a soft touch, as was demonstrated all too clearly when Arsenal hammered in five goals at Stamford Bridge recently. AVB's ambitious tactic of pushing both fullbacks into advance positions and playing a "high line" is being exploited by rival attackers. (See Liverpool's first goal in the league cup tie this week).

In short, the Blues' approach has been too cavalier for their own good.

There is, too, the feeling that the era dominated by Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba is nearing its end, with aging limbs starting to become a factor.

Then there is the nightmare that seems to have no end for the $80 million striker Fernando Torres. Most of us believed Torres' form would eventually return, but the hurtful truth is he seems to have lost all confidence and sharpness -- and may never get it back. It may be that Torres will have to bear the same "Stamford Bridge flop" label as big names like Andriy Shevchenko, Chris Sutton, Hernan Crespo and Mateja Kezman.

Chelsea is not a bad side, and fans can take heart from the emergence of Daniel Sturridge and the quality provided by Juan Mata. But the 34-year-old Villas-Boas -- a massive success at Porto -- needs to prove quickly that he's not in too deep at Chelsea. Time is rarely on the side of managers in that part of West London.

The knee injury that is likely to rule out Liverpool midfielder Lucas for six months might once have been greeted with a shrug of the shoulders from Anfield fans. Not any more. The Brazilian has become a key figure and gave a man-of-the-match display on Sunday against Manchester City.

How manager Kenny Dalglish covers his absence can be seen when Liverpool visits Fulham on Dec. 5, with a 3 p.m. ET kickoff (live on ESPN2).

One option is home-produced product Jay Spearing, who had a successful spell in the team last season. Jordan Henderson is another possibility.

Who can know what mental demons led Premier League icon Gary Speed to apparently take his own life at the age of 42? Gary, the first player to reach 500 Premier League appearances and a title winner at Leeds, was enormously liked and respected by everyone in football. He was doing a superb job as manager of a revitalized Wales team, as well.

The outpouring of grief and tributes at all his clubs -- Leeds, Everton, Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield United -- has been remarkable, and the Welsh hymn "Bread of Heaven" will be sung before Newcastle's game Saturday. It will be an emotional occasion.

The reasons for his death seem likely to remain a tragic mystery.

RIP, Gary.

Ian Darke is a commentator for ESPN. You can reach him on Twitter at

Darke, who called games for the network during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, is ESPN lead soccer voice in the United States. He has covered the Barclays Premier League and the Champions League since 1982, and has one of the world's most recognizable soccer voices.