Villas-Boas earns breathing space
A 3-0 win over Newcastle at St James' Park eased the pressure on Chelsea boss Andre Villas-Boas, but it was not without fortune.
By Peter Fraser - Follow me on twitter @SkySportsPeteF
Last Updated: 03/12/11 4:05pm
While Andre Villas-Boas may insist he is not living in fear of the being axed by Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea manager's comments upon job security have been described as those of a man attempting to talk his head off the block.
But on an emotional day at St James' Park, where Newcastle remembered former midfielder Gary Speed with heartfelt tributes, Didier Drogba's header and late goals from Salomon Kalou and Daniel Sturridge earned a win and evidence of what Villas-Boas is attempting to evolve within Chelsea. It was, though, not without fortune.
His team were lucky not to see David Luiz sent off inside five minutes, however, it was a deserved win after proving the most ominous attacking threat on Saturday lunchtime, albeit with what are becoming characteristic defensive blunders.
It eased the pressure on 34-year-old Villas-Boas ahead of Tuesday's crucial European date with Valencia and gave a pointer among the cynicism that the Chelsea boss has the substance upon which to build.
The Londoners, with Juan Mata and Sturridge proving persistent menaces, moved above Newcastle and Tottenham to climb into the top three of the Premier League and collected back-to-back wins in the top flight in the process amid a previous run of three defeats in four matches in all competitions.
In contrast, Alan Pardew, whose side had previously had to navigate a defeat to Manchester City before last weekend's heroic draw at Manchester United, could grumble about Luiz's escape. However, the Newcastle boss knew his squad would be tested by the trio of fixtures against established heavyweights and he could take positives.
In truth, a return of one point probably reflects his team's status, despite the hugely impressive start to the season which had led to talk of contending for the UEFA Champions League and even the title.
Chelsea were the better team and demonstrated their potential to find consistency. Villas-Boas will now be determined to be given time, but the gossip column rumours regarding his future are unlikely to be silenced.
If Villas-Boas was to lose his job, which given Abramovich's history of erratic decisions could become reality next week should Valencia dump the three-time Premier League winners out of the UEFA Champions League and end the Chelsea owner's quest for his Holy Grail for another season, Luiz would be an epitome of his reign.
Consensus is that Villas-Boas was appointed on a three-year contract in the summer, after Porto were paid £13.3million in compensation, to remodel Chelsea into a young and fresh new era - dispensing of the likes of Frank Lampard, Drogba and John Terry.
Luiz, at the age of 24, would therefore in theory be a cornerstone, but the Brazilian has become a figure of fun and his midweek inclusion in the 55-man shortlist of contenders for FIFA's World XI of 2011 has been met with general confusion after a series of gaffes.
The suggestion is that Villas-Boas is losing the belief of his squad because of his faith in Luiz, a man 10 years his junior, and there were further baffled looks in just the fourth minute on Tyneside when the centre-back hauled down Demba Ba, who was through on goal.
Referee Mike Dean stunned the vast majority inside the stadium by only brandishing his yellow card. Even Luiz, who always looks as if his mind is elsewhere, presumably sighed with relief.
Dean further angered home fans in the 13th minute of what was an absorbing, end-to-end contest when pointing to the penalty spot after Yohan Cabaye, despite his protests, blatantly tripped the excellent Sturridge.
With Villas-Boas in his trademark crouched position inside his technical area, Lampard, a player whose days are supposedly numbered, saw the Newcastle goalkeeper Tim Krul, who did not deserve to be on the losing side, tip the spot-kick onto a post and away.
Sturridge, with Fernando Torres watching from the bench after his lifeless performance in Tuesday's Carling Cup defeat to former club Liverpool, was a livewire and hit the base of Krul's upright just moments later before then forcing the Dutchman into another save.
But Newcastle responded and Ba was only denied by a fabulous reflex stop from Petr Cech, reportedly one of the players Villas-Boas will dispense with if he makes it to the end of the season.
Pardew, whose thin squad will be tested by injuries over the course of the season, was forced to replace captain Fabricio Coloccini with James Perch shortly before the half-hour due to a thigh injury suffered by the Argentine.
Amid all their problems, though, Chelsea still have an array of talented players and, along with Sturridge, Mata was causing Newcastle severe problems. The Spaniard superbly skipped away from Danny Simpson to cross and Drogba was only denied by Ryan Taylor's intervention.
Ten minutes before the break Newcastle had their best chance. Ba sent a header against a post and Terry, with a hint of Laurel and Hardy, cannoned a clearance into Luiz for the ricochet to drift just wide of the despairing Cech's goal.
But Chelsea had looked the most likely to open the scoring and from the calamitous defending of Terry and Luiz, they went to the clinical attacking of Mata and Drogba in the 38th minute.
Mata exposed the defensive weaknesses of Cabaye, as he ran off the back of the Frenchman to collect a throw-in at the byline, half-volley a cross and Drogba did the rest when heading past Krul.
Pardew decided to replace the ineffective Hatem Ben Arfa with Shola Ameobi at half-time and the 30-year-old striker's eyes lit up in a positive start to the second half, but he was closed down quickly by Lampard when 16 yards from goal.
Chelsea, however, continued to look a menace and Drogba horribly dragged a close-range effort wide after Simpson had misjudged a cross to the back post.
Drogba was at the heart of the action and in the 54th minute he was lucky when heading a corner against his own crossbar when marking Ba. Chelsea immediately broke and Sturridge fed Ramires, who was only denied by Krul's legs, as the goalkeeper notched up another save.
Ameobi's introduction was providing Terry and Luiz with a different, aerial challenge in a string of long balls. But just before the hour the forward dropped deep and sent a fizzing drive just wide of the target.
The two teams were exchanging possession in the blink of an eye and Chelsea were coming under pressure as a result. Villas-Boas' decision was to send on the guile of Raul Meireles in place of a clearly less-than-happy Lampard.
Both sides were reverting to counter-attack against counter-attack as they entered the final 20 minutes. Pardew threw on Sammy Ameobi as a replacement for Peter Lovenkrands and just minutes later the former saw Terry clear an effort off the goal-line.
Mata's afternoon was over in the 74th minute, when Villas-Boas turned to Kalou, who had not played in the Premier League since the victory over West Brom on 20th August.
Newcastle were huffing and puffing and Pardew was stalking his technical area in frustration that his side could not find an equaliser.
Torres was given the last 11 minutes in which to attempt to find some sort of form as a substitution for Drogba, but Newcastle seemed to be finishing the stronger and Shola Ameobi rattled the cross bar from 20 yards with a blistering effort that had completely beaten Cech.
The effort summed up a comparatively luckless 90 minutes for the home side, who themselves were happy not to see Ryan Taylor dismissed for a wild challenge on Sturridge, while Steven Taylor had to leave the field before the end seemingly due to injury.Chelsea's endurance meant they were able to snatch late second and third goals through Kalou and Sturridge to leave Villas-Boas punching the air in celebration. But he will know there is still work to do.
|Newcastle United||Team Statistics||Chelsea|
|0||1st Half Goals||1|
|3||Shots on Target||9|
|8||Shots off Target||8|
|50.1||1st Half Poss.||49.9|
|55.1||2nd Half Poss.||44.9|