When Pink Floyd sang "How I wish, how I wish you were here/We're just two lost souls/Swimming in a fish bowl" in their 1975 hit Wish You Were Here, the song was very much an ode to former band member Syd Barrett. One suspects any Chelsea fans considering those lyrics on Thursday would have been thinking of Andre Villas-Boas instead.
What a difference a year can make. On Mar. 7, 2012, Villas-Boas was not long unemployed and his reputation in tatters. From a team expected to challenge for the league title under the young Portuguese, Chelsea were merely writing another episode to their on-going soap opera.
From league title contenders, their championship challenge had eroded amid tales of a dressing room revolt (via Daily Mail) and they were heading out of the Champions League, too, after a 3-1 away defeat to Napoli.
Fast forward 12 months, however, and oh, how the tables have turned.
While Chelsea were struggling in the Europa League away to Steaua Bucharest on Thursday evening, Villas-Boas' Tottenham Hotspur were ripping through Inter Milan, comfortably winning 3-0 against a club that three years ago were European champions themselves.
It was the kind of display at White Hart Lane worthy of the Champions League football Spurs fans crave so much. They were rampant and, come 90 minutes, Inter looked ready to beg the referee to blow his whistle and bring an end to their misery.
Indeed, 1,500-odd miles away in Romania, the contrast couldn't have been any clearer. In another unfulfilling display, Chelsea came unstuck to Steaua Bucharest courtesy of a Raul Rusescu penalty, losing 1-0 in a game that further undermined their temporary status as European champions.
It would have been painful to watch for any Blues supporter and given how Villas-Boas has restored his reputation with Spurs this term, they must be watching on in awe, thinking of what might have been.
Villas-Boas has shown this season that the plaudits he earned as Porto manager were not misguided—he is an exceptional manager, achieving exceptional things. Spurs are a club suddenly with appeal and their manager is a major reason for their newfound status.
On the other hand, since his departure, Chelsea have regressed. From contesting for the Champions League, the Blues are now resigned to losing matches to inferior opposition in an inferior competition, the Europa League. Whereas Villas-Boas is looking ahead with relish, Chelsea appear at their wits end, concerned they may not finish in the Premier League’s top four and unsure of what the future holds.
Winning the Champions League in May last year is a night many Blues fans will struggle to forget. But at what cost did it come? The man who replaced Villas-Boas to lead them there, Roberto Di Matteo, has been fired himself, while the man who had the potential to build his own legacy is busy trying to do just that with their rivals.
The irony is, Chelsea are better equipped this term to play the football and system Villas-Boas tried to introduce during his short spell as boss. Oscar, Eden Hazard and the like would make his Chelsea far more devastating than Spurs right now, but impatience from the boardroom has meant that isn't possible.
Losing to Steaua is a game and performance that will be quickly forgotten should the Blues defeat Manchester United in the FA Cup on Sunday. But it cannot be viewed in isolation.
Statistics may show that since Roman Abramovich's takeover in 2003, Chelsea are England's most successful club by the odd trophy. It pays homage to the theory the club's methods work, but football is changing and they run the risk of being left behind.
Chelsea had the right man in Jose Mourinho but they allowed him to leave in 2007. They did the same with Villas-Boas last season—with Benitez declaring he, too, will be gone come the summer, Chelsea run the risk of becoming a club very much in the mould of the Spaniard's former team Liverpool—one trading on past glories.
Come to think of it, that lyric—“lost souls, swimming in a fish bowl”—is rather apt after all.
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