12 December ~ Chelsea (read Roman Abramovich) have had many false dawns since the departure of José Mourinho. Even Carlo Ancelotti’s short-lived but valiant effort in charge that yielded three trophies was not enough to save him from the Russian oligarch’s trigger-happy hire and fire methods. In André Villas-Boas, it seemed Chelsea had found what they had been missing – a young Portuguese manager from Porto with little to no professional footballing experience, with a scruffy appearance and a knack of wearing long coats.
Things looked familiar and promising but several months into the season all is not well. A few poor performances, coupled with strikers who generally refuse to turn up and new defensive tactics that have proven difficult for his team to adapt to have forced AVB into a corner.
Enter Valencia, with Chelsea needing a result to ensure their Champions League survival. Chelsea won convincingly and AVB gave his best impression of a bear being poked with a stick. His tactics seemed to click and a different looking Chelsea side disposed of the dangerous Spanish opposition, finishing as group leaders.
The manager claimed after the match that he was the victim of anti-Chelsea criticism, with the brunt of his relieved wrath aimed at no other than Gary Neville. AVB claimed to be "bemused" and "gobsmacked" by Neville's recent analysis, although not as much as the general public (Manchester United fans exempt) in regards to Sky's choice of Neville as their new pundit.
While Manchester City had their European dreams dashed at a time when ten points would have been enough to take them through most other groups, their Premier League form remains right on track. They look pretty much unstoppable. A side containing the talents of hugely expensive yet hugely likeable players such as David Silva, Yaya Touré and Sergio Agüero is hard to look past even for the most diehard of rival fans. But their league form and star-studded squad proved ineffective in Europe. Few of City's players have experienced such unexpected disappointment so it will be interesting to see how their egos hold up against a Chelsea side with their tails in the air.
One reason for Chelsea's recent resurgence has been the performances of Oriol Romeu. The ex-Barcelona midfielder has been simple, influential and effective in recent games, especially against Newcastle and Valencia. He has proved his worth in Chelsea's midfield trio, showing his "tiki taka" upbringing and always looking comfortable and forward thinking – something Jon Obi Mikel could only ever dream of.
Romeu's performances provide Chelsea with a catch-22 situation, due to the terms of his €5 million transfer from Barcelona. He was permitted to leave as players such as Cesc Fabregas, Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets were in his way. Realising that Romeu's potential could be nurtured more effectively at another top European club, Barca inserted a buy-back clause into the deal. Romeu can be purchased back for €10 million after this season or €15 million after next season.
The Romeu transfer is not the only example of Barcelona's desire to buy back their players. The Spanish giants have been accused of using other clubs as a sort of finishing school for their own academy graduates. Barcelona appear to be simply covering themselves from another messy and drawn out Fabergas style saga. The "Football Managers" out there will appreciate the benefits of the buy-back system in regards to your young poached talent.
Tonight's game lends itself to a potential turning point for both teams midway through the season. Chelsea have recaptured their early form and could now have clicked under their new attacking-minded manager. And although City are out of Europe, they have managed 2.93 goals a game this season. It's all set for a boring no-score draw then. Jonathan Warke