London may be a poor cousin, in terms of footballing success, to the north of England but that hasn’t stopped any of the London sides from concentrating on what’s really important – hating each other with a passion. Silverware can wait.
It’s no secret that Millwall and West Ham should never be left alone unsupervised. And Arsenal frequently assure Tottenham that Chelsea’s newfound success hasn’t displaced the Spurs from the top of the Gunners’ hate list. Queens Park Rangers and Chelsea now see each other more often in court, than on the field.
But it’s Chelsea’s long simmering rivalry with Tottenham that’s taken a nastier and decidedly more personal turn in recent times. The grudge between the Blues and the Lilywhites goes long back, dating from the shameful days when Chelsea’s fringe fascists declared war on Tottenham’s ethnicity. Then there was Jimmy Greaves, who might have been Chelsea’s biggest legend if he hadn’t taken the train to White Hart Lane and proceed to break every scoring record for the Spurs. In 1975 as Chelsea battled relegation, Tottenham Hotspur would play the friendly neighbor by beating the Blues 2-0, subsequently sending the struggling West Londoners down. Tottenham went through a lean patch in the 90s, as Chelsea began to exert themselves a bit more.
After the turn of the century, however, the Blues were completely on top, even making it to the Champions League, before eventually being bought by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. Ironically enough, one of the other clubs Abramovich had considered buying was Tottenham Hotspur. The Lilywhites would sit by the sidelines as the Blues raced to the top of the Premier League thrice, and added the Champions League to their cabinet. The Spurs were suddenly the spurned step sister, while Chelsea’s Cinderella got asked to the ball.
Redknapp sparked a revival in Tottenham, as the Spurs soon began challenging Chelsea for a spot in the Top 4. As fate would have it, in 2011-12, one of Chelsea’s worst runs of form in the league coincided with one of Tottenham’s most dogged. The Spurs made it to fourth spot, securing Champions League qualification, but the Blues’ incredible title charge in Europe ended in the Spurs’ most prized possession getting wrenched out of their hands. If that was bitter enough to add a new page to the inter-club rivalry, two of Roman Abramovich’s employees would soon find a way to make it personal.
It started when Villas-Boas returned to Stamford Bridge in 2011, in a managerial avatar this time, on the back of glory at Porto and with a sole purpose in mind. A project, if you will. It was to fundamentally reshape the way the club played. Unfortunately, the way the club played – building momentum gradually from the back, holding possession in midfield before attacking in waves – wasn’t just any plan that could be torn up in favor of a new one. It had become part of the club’s DNA. And central to that was one man, Frank Lampard – the undisputed brains in Chelsea’s squad. When Didier Drogba was busy living for the moment and John Terry was pounding his chest, Frank Lampard was the one licking his lips, plotting the next move and lying in wait. Chelsea’s style of play didn’t just suit him; he had made it his own.
Frank Lampard isn’t a box to box midfielder, or an Iberian twinkle-toed magician or even a Xavi-esque passer of the ball. He was a thinker who got himself in the right place at the right time, unfailingly. It wasn’t by accident that when Chelsea needed someone to step up the most, it was Frank invariably doing the honors.
Andre Villas-Boas’ decision to inject pace and a new style of playing wasn’t just a disservice to Frank Lampard, it was an act of war. When Frank’s failings in the system were ruthlessly exposed, Villas-Boas patted himself on the back at having made the vice-captain’s obsolence evident to all. As far as the Portuguese was concerned, it was his way or the highway.
It might have gone swimmingly, but there was the tiny matter of grinding out results week in and week out. That was where Lampard excelled, while the exciting talent brought into replace him failed. Villas-Boas’ first mistake was to double down on his plan. If Chelsea failed to get all 3 points, it wasn’t because they were defending halfway up the pitch, but because they weren’t scoring enough.
As Lampard found himself on the bench more often than he ever imagined possible, and as the club’s form dipped, Villas-Boas’ reign became more unpopular. When backed into a corner, Villas-Boas obliged like every good dictator would. By strengthening his resolve even further. Anelka and Alex were shut out of the squad, in a move intended to bodyslam the rest of the team into submission more than anything else. When Lampard publicly voiced his displeasure at being left out of Chelsea’s side, with barely an explanation, matters between the two had come to a boil.
Villas-Boas, who seemed so tone-deaf to Lampard’s concerns, was strangely seemingly at his diplomatic best when dealing with John Terry. Perhaps it was because he truly believed the skipper had a role to play in his project, even though Terry was just as guilty of being slow as Lampard was. It might, in all honestly, it might have had a dash of cynicism to it. Having identified John Terry as the alpha-male of the team, Villas-Boas worked hard to get the captain in his corner – even standing by Terry during every new controversy.
In return, he presumed and expected the captain’s silence as he ruled the rest of the team with an iron fist. But it isn’t necessarily the alpha-males that start the wars. If that were the case Terry and Mourinho would have been at each other’s throats, back in the day when Villas-Boas was just a pen pusher. Villas-Boas, a master tactician by many accounts, didn’t realize one of the people he was riding roughshod over was Chelsea’s own resident tactician – Frank Lampard. Having also manged to tick off Didier Drogba, Ashley Cole – and surprisingly – even Fernando Torres, Villas-Boas’ position was fast becoming tenuous.
In the end, when Villas-Boas was unceremoniously shown the door, John Terry, who was the one senior player he remained on amicable terms with, remained silent – choosing not to antagonize the rest of the team. Roman Abramovich, who remained fond of Villas-Boas, reportedly held the team responsible for the young manager’s failure. It was now up to the team to prove Villas-Boas was the reason for their predicament. And nobody wanted to drive that point home more than Frank Lampard.
Roberto di Matteo, was an equally shrewd observer. Once in charge, he proceeded to roll back the changes instituted by his immediate predecessor. He pulled off a coup by letting an increasingly restless Frank play a more holding midfield role, by Mikel’s side. The new position might not have been Lampard’s top choice, but Frank was keen to put Villas-Boas’ suggestions he wasn’t a team man behind him once and for all.
That must rankle Villas-Boas to no end. One of the biggest voices of opposition during his time meekly accepting a lesser role, in a plea bargain of sorts without even the slightest of prods from di Matteo. Frank probably had no choice rather than risk skating on thin ice toward a seething Abramovich. While the stones Villas-Boas rejected became the cornerstones of Chelsea’s successful campaign, Lampard’s transformation from hermit in the wilderness to the engine of Chelsea’s renaissance will forever be a constant reminder to the Portuguese of his own failings as manager. Villas-Boas might feel aggrieved that he was hung out to dry by a group led by Frank Lampard that may have – did they? – played short of their potential. Which is why his choice of Tottenham Hotspur – Chelsea’s old enemy – is so telling.
His misguided attempt at staking some claim to Chelsea’s Champions League triumph notwithstanding, their victory would certainly have felt like the final nail in the coffin bearing his career at Stamford Bridge. Shut out of the Champions League as a result of the Blues’ victory, was Chelsea’s old enemy – Tottenham Hotspur. It was destiny then that the two most likely to feel left out in the cold because of Chelsea’s triumph would join hands – Villas-Boas and Tottenham Hotspur.
With a new swashbuckling team at his disposal, that purportedly plays to his strengths, Villas-Boas has a long overdue chance to exact some measure of revenge on his former club. Beating the Blues by a considerable margin playing the style he so dearly prizes, would feel like an early Christmas. Any triumph of the Spurs, will inevitably involve Chelsea’s back line – the holding midfield and defense – being caught out of place, too slow to react to the pace that the Spurs will bring. Nothing will give the Spurs’ boss more satisfaction than watching Chelsea concede more goals, while Lampard tries to do upfront precisely what Villas-Boas said he couldn’t.
For Lampard, this clash provides him an opportunity of the diametrically opposite kind. To prove just why rumors of his demise, courtesy Villas-Boas, were exaggerated. If Chelsea’s midfield run rampant at White Hart Lane, while shielding their suspect defense from Lennon and Bale, a huge portion of that credit will go to Frank Lampard. That would be an additional blow to Villas-Boas’ pedigree.
If Chelsea win playing the expansive attacking brand of football he tried to instill in them, Villas-Boas may just find a silver lining. If the Spurs win, and Lampard gets substituted in a bid to increase Chelsea’s attacking threat, Villas-Boas will have all the evidence he needed that he was right all along.
Two men have a lot more riding on this game than merely seeing their sides win. One’s search for redemption took him to the doorsteps of his former club’s biggest rivals, while the other looks to fight off the ravages of time, and keep at bay a future in which he may no longer be indispensable.
Two men who hold each other responsible for the most trying times of their career, will cross paths again in the context of the latest edition of a derby contested between two clubs with many an unsettled score between them. This time, however, it’s personal.