Pressure continued to mount on Andre Villas-Boas after a drab draw in the FA Cup against Championship side Birmingham City. The under-fire Chelsea manager saw his side frequently fail to break down a well-organised Birmingham side, meaning a replay at St Andrews was needed, to be played on 6th March. David Murphy opened the scoring for the Midlands side, and when Ramires was felled in the box two minutes later, it was an early chance to claw back the deficit, only for Mata to see his penalty well saved by Doyle. Sturridge did level things in the second half with a precise header, but that was not enough and another ninety minutes will have to be played. Whether AVB will be in the dugout for that match will surely depend on a critical next few matches for the young Portuguese manager.
Sensing this is the only real chance for silverware this season, AVB put out a strong side. Ramires was passed fit to play, and he was joined in midfield by Mikel. Cahill started in defence, with Ivanovic moved to right-back for the rested Bosingwa. Kalou and Drogba – Chelsea’s Ivorian duo back from the African Cup of Nations – had to settle for a place on the bench; Fernando Torres starting again.
AVB, pre-match, ought to have been screaming at his players that this was a decisive match for him and the club, yet the message, if there was one, clearly did not get through. Chelsea were their typical lackadaisical self, whilst Birmingham were more than happy to sit back and soak up the pressure. The early loss of the captain Stephen Carr did not faze their defence in the slightest, and Chelsea did not feel the need to press his replacement Spector, to see if he was ready for the test.
Nineteen minutes in and Chelsea woke up, but into a nightmare. Everybody in Chelsea’s defence moved towards the front post, and it was their left-back David Murphy who rifled home from close range. A look of disbelief spread across the Chelsea players and the bench, though no-one was to blame but themselves.
Within two minutes Chelsea had a chance for redemption. Wade Elliot clipped Ramires, but Juan Mata’s low penalty was well blocked by Colin Doyle. This summed up the match so far, and the fan’s frustrations grew. When things do not go your way, boy do they not go your way.
Luiz went on another one of his ventures forward and drew a free-kick. The Brazilian opted to take it himself, and it brought out a good save from Doyle. The half drew to a close, AVB knew he needed to make changes, and the boos rang out loud and clear.
Drogba was the man on for Torres in the second half, a substitution which AVB later admits that Torres “did not take lightly.” He was conspicuous by his absence from the TV cameras after that. The Drog looked in form after his penalty heartache for the Ivory Coast, and tried to motivate his team into life, even telling Colin Doyle to hurry up with a goal-kick. The fact one does that with still 45 minutes remaining and just a 1-0 deficit is indicative of the desperation currently felt amongst the Chelsea camp.
Not even 55 minutes into the match and AVB felt it necessary to make another change: compatriot Kalou came into the thick of things, off was Mikel, who failed to show AVB why he should be picked. This change allowed Mata to revert to a more central role, and immediately, his vision spotted the onrushing Ivanovic. His delivery was outstanding, and headed in by Daniel Sturridge, to the relief of those within the stadium.
The search for a winner continued with still half an hour on the clock, but the momentum that ought to have been stimulated from this goal proved lacking. Mata went off for Lampard in AVB’s final substitution of the match. Surprise spread amongst the crowd, though Lampard was a welcome relief. And the 33 year-old could have been an instant hero with his free-kick, one in Didier Drogba territory, but all he could do was thump it against a sealed wall.
The cutting edge was lacking, the desire devoid. Chelsea need to pick themselves up again – big time – in time for Tuesday’s crunch tie against Napoli. A loss there and AVB’s days as Chelsea manager may be numbered.
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