Bayer Leverkusen 2 Chelsea 1: And so the hangman tightens his noose. Talk of Andre Villas-Boas’s execution after just 16 weeks as Chelsea manager might have seemed premature, almost paranoid, but after his side’s hopes of progression in the Champions League went the way of their Premier League dreams, the Portuguese will be able to feel Roman Abramovich’s breath on the back of his neck.
Once again, he will reflect, it is his high line which has placed him on the high wire. Chelsea looked safe, he looked safe, when his defence went awol, allowing Eren Derdiyok to cancel out Didier Drogba’s opener. Chelsea shattered and fell. Arne Friedrich headed home in stoppage time.
Villas-Boas must now beat Valencia to be certain of qualification for the latter stages of this competition, the one his benefactor values more than any other. Anything less, and his head is on the block.
This was a side who came into the game shorn of conviction, bereft of confidence. Within 60 seconds, David Luiz had gifted the ball to Stefan Kiessling. The Brazilian has a genius for making himself the centre of attention; even when he is playing well, he gives the impression of being a colt who is merely pretending to be broken.
That error set the tone. Chelsea wore their shattered, shredded nerves on their sleeves. Passes went astray, their interplay lacked cohesion. Gonzalo Castro, an electric presence, harried Jose Bosingwa, employed on the left-hand side of defence in the absence of the injured Ashley Cole. Chelsea’s line, always under scrutiny, ebbed and flowed like the tide; one minute high, a moment later deep.
Lars Bender and Simon Rolfes overpowered Raul Meireles and Frank Lampard in the centre of the pitch. A pace further forward, even the face mask donned by Michael Ballack to protect a broken cheekbone could not conceal his identity; after all, even in the autumn of his career, the cocksure strut and languid stride are a dead giveaway.
It was the 35-year-old who went closest to making his old club fear for their Champions League future early on, rising high to head Castro’s corner on to the bar.
At least, at last, that glancing blow served to stir Villas-Boas’s side into action; where previously Chelsea had lacked resolve, suddenly they were intense, purposeful. Drogba, preferred to Fernando Torres, found only the side-netting after Daniel Sturridge’s through-ball had allowed him to round Bernd Leno; the two strikers combined, a beat later, to tee up Juan Mata, but the Spaniard shot straight at the keeper.
Slowly, Chelsea emerged, a recognisable Chelsea, not the shell of the team which has proved so callow in domestic combat in recent weeks. Immediately after the interval, Drogba conjured a lead, shielding Sturridge’s pass from Friedrich, cradling the ball at his feet inside the Leverkusen box, twisting his body and then drilling the ball past Leno’s outstretched arm. It was the Drogba of old who scored his first goal for two months.
Leverkusen teetered; their guests, for weeks forced to endure the torture of self-doubt, could scarcely conceal their glee at the prospect of exploiting it. First Lampard, then Branislav Ivanovic drew Leno into action.
So deep has been Chelsea’s malaise, though, that the idea of immediate recovery, some sort of rapid-action panacea, was far-fetched. Villas-Boas’s problems will not be solved with a win, or even a series of wins. His defence remains porous — twice Ballack should have equalised, only to find himself denied first by Petr Cech’s fingertips and then his shins — and his midfield lacks the requisite control to asphyxiate all but the most limited of opponents. Kiessling, too, teed up by Castro, might have scored.
Chelsea didn’t heed the warnings. No sooner had Florent Malouda strolled through Robin Dutt’s side’s defence than Leverkusen pegged the visitors back. Yet again, Chelsea’s destruction was of their own making.
There is, apparently, no mood for finger-pointing at Cobham. A good thing, too, or they would be cast disparagingly in the direction of Sturridge, who allowed Sidney Sam to ghost into space down Chelsea’s right side; they would be directed towards Ivanovic and Alex, both of whom had disappeared as the winger raced toward goal; at Cech, who stood between his line and the advancing forward as though his feet were encased in concrete. All were guilty as Sam crossed and Derdiyok headed home.
This is a team hamstrung by mental fragility. Friedrich headed home, almost unmarked, at the death. It was an unconscionable error, almost negligent. The case against Villas-Boas mounts.