THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Will Andriy Shevchenko’s struggles push José Mourinho out of Chelsea? James Brandon weighs up the odds

Before the start of the season, WSC 235 predicted that the arrival of Andriy Shevchenko would destabilise the equilibrium at Chelsea, be consigned to the bench and accelerate José Mourinho’s departure. What then appeared a far-fetched possibility now looks likelier with every passing day. Shevchenko’s ­inability to find a niche within Mourinho’s tactical plan, together with his perceived position as the owner’s favourite, have brought the power struggle that has been rumbling behind the scenes at Chelsea into the public domain.

For all Mourinho’s initial claims that he was happy to have Shevchenko on board and his humouring of Abramovich by rejigging his formation to accommodate the forward, the Ukrainian’s reluctance or downright inability to fulfil the manager’s tactical brief appears to have tested the ­Portuguese’s patience to the limits.

Shevchenko is used to enjoying a privileged position with his paymaster. At Milan, Silvio Berlusconi treated him like an adopted son, while his record and status made him immune to criticism. At Chelsea, Sheva’s closeness to Abramovich, paired with his lack of impact on the field, has seen him cast as teacher’s pet and provoked suspicion that he is breaking a cardinal rule by leaking locker-room secrets to the prefect.

A key ingredient of Mourinho’s winning formula has been his unerring ability to deflect attention from his players and place himself at the centre of the media glare. Those who have attributed this merely to his own vainglory and love of the limelight do him a disservice: it is a ploy that has ­enabled him take the pressure off his team and in turn intensified their loyalty to him. Now, with Shevchenko, that stratagem has imploded: the Ukrainian has become the star of the Chelsea soap. The former partner, the mentor and the rival have all spoken out; even cod psychologists have offered insights into the body language of the protagonists to explain why Shevchenko’s stay at Stamford Bridge is turning out to be such an unhappy one.

Heading up the pro-Shevchenko lobby is Oleg Blokhin, head coach of Ukraine, who has blamed Mourinho. “It’s one thing when the press and the supporters put pressure on a football star,” opined Blokhin. “But when the manager of his own club starts making negative comments about him, then I find that both incomprehensible and unpleasant.” There is, incidentally, an irony here: Blokhin has faced similar problems trying to square Sheva’s icon status with his inability to serve the needs of the team.

Sergei Rebrov, who knows what it’s like to be a Ukrainian flop in London, offered heartfelt words of solidarity to his old foil: “I speak to Sheva a lot and I know why it’s so hard for him at Chelsea,” said the former Spurs man. “It’s very simple. He was brought to Chelsea not by the manager, but by the club owner. In situations like that, it’s hard for players to shine. I had to find myself a new team. Andriy might have to do the same… José Mourinho often tells the press that he has faith in Andriy and that he is counting on him. But the reality is a bit different.”

Even Vladimir Romanov, the poor man’s Abramovich, who knows a thing or two about putting managers in their place, having seen off four in the two years at Hearts, chipped in with the oligarch perspective: “Look at the situation with Abramovich and Mourinho,” he said. “This person invested his money, created a superclub, and now suddenly it seems that it was the ­Portuguese who has done everything.”

In the anti-Sheva camp, there was a ­surprisingly forthright critique offered by ­Arsenal’s Aleksandr Hleb. There is a subtext here, as the Belarusian has long vied with Shevchenko for the mantle of best player from the former Soviet Union, a rivalry fuelled by the monthly ratings run by influential Russian sports daily Sport Express. “I was never convinced that Andriy would be able to play here,” said Hleb. “The problem lies in the style of the English league, in terms of the tempo and the time you get to think. The Italian and English leagues are two very different propositions. And the younger a player is, the easier it is for him to adapt and get to grips with English football. The older you get, the harder it gets. Shevchenko is not the first great footballer who has not managed to crown himself in glory here. I would never have risked coming to England towards the end of my career.”

Hleb has a point. In Italy, Shevchenko had a mobile forward such as Gilardino or Inzaghi in the supporting role; at Dynamo Kiev and for Ukraine, he could feed off the bullets fed to him by Rebrov. At Chelsea, in a makeshift 4-4-2, he is competing for the same space occupied so ably by Didier Drogba. The dysfunctionality of the partnership has prompted the Ivorian to complain.

Shortly before this WSC went to press, the heat on Shevchenko was eased as he ended his goal drought with a double against Wycombe in the Carling Cup then was credited with scoring against Nottingham Forest, though that was probably an own goal. The goals prompted a temporary truce between player and manager, but Sheva needs to do more than notch a few goals against inferior cup opposition if he is to prove his value in England. He still looks far from good value at £30 million. He may well end up costing Chelsea much more than that.

From WSC 241 March 2007. What was happening this month

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