Abramovich puzzle becomes deeper with each manager
'A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma' - Winston Churchill's famous quote about Russia's intentions in the second world war as easily applies now to the actions of Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch whose plan for Chelsea is far from clear.
The team are in a state of flux again as they prepare to host Stoke tonight after Abramovich rolled the dice again with the ninth manager of his nine-year ownership of the club. Perhaps nine will be his lucky number, but the chances are it won't be and he will move on to 10, 11 . . .
Abramovich is said to crave Champions League victory above all else, but there is no coherent approach to finding the type of manager who could deliver that ultimate triumph. He has tried the young and ambitious - Jose Mourinho and his one-time prot?g?Andre Villas-Boas - with varying degrees of success. He has tried the trophied eminences of Felipe Scolari and Carlo Ancelotti, again with varied results, and he has tried stand-ins such as Guus Hiddink, Avram Grant and now Roberto Di Matteo.
What appears to have escaped Abramovich's notice is that Manchester United and Arsenal - the two most successful clubs in the English Premier League era - appointed managers in their mid-40s and stuck with them through thick and thin. Pick them young and give them time to build is the magic formula used by United, Arsenal and countless other successful clubs when choosing a manager.
The suspicion is that Alex Ferguson would not have lasted the 41/2 years it took him to win a trophy with United if Abramovich had been the owner. Mourinho was the longest-serving manager under Abramovich, but he lasted only 31/4 years despite being the most successful in Chelsea's history.
Arsene Wenger was quick to achieve success at Arsenal with the Premier League-FA Cup double in his first full season but it is doubtful whether Abramovich would have been happy to wait almost 10 years for his first Champions League final. Ancelotti, who secured Chelsea's first domestic double in his first season, did not deliver Champions League success and lasted only two seasons.
Nobody - perhaps not even Abramovich - knows what Villas-Boas was expected to achieve when he was handed the poisoned chalice last summer, which makes it hard to judge whether he was a success or failure in his short reign at Chelsea.
He was in danger of failing if his task was to win trophies in his first season or if the minimum target was to ensure Champions League qualification. Yet, if Abramovich's intention was to rebuild Chelsea with a younger team and younger manager, Villas-Boas cannot be judged a failure because he wasn't given enough time to complete the job.
The conundrum for Abramovich is that Chelsea have the players to push for honours now and it is understandable that Frank Lampard, John Terry and Didier Drogba do not want to stand aside, yet there is an urgent need to refresh the squad.
Too much of Abramovich's money has been spent on ageing high-earners who appear untouchable and on expensive purchases of big-name players who were past their prime.
With the two Manchester clubs snapping up the best young talent and Barcelona planning for a future without Xavi by bringing in Cesc Fabregas, Abramovich needs to follow their example if Chelsea are to compete again for the big prizes. It's going to be a tough job.
Stoke, however, should be easy first opponents for Di Matteo, the caretaker. For all their strengths at the Britannia, Stoke struggle on the road against the better teams and since promotion their record away to the big six is won one, drawn two and lost 19.
Stoke have lost by at least two goals in 15 of those 22 matches and have failed to score in the same number, which points to Chelsea on the handicap and score lines with Chelsea winning to nil - eight of Stoke's 19 defeats in that category have been 2-0 or 3-0.
The title battle goes on without Chelsea, and the Manchester clubs are both short odds tomorrow even though they face in-form mid-table sides. United should be able to cope with West Brom at home, but City will have to be at their best to take three points at Swansea, who have the second-best home defence in the Premier League and have lost only two out of 13 at the Liberty Stadium.
City look stronger again with Yaya Toure back at the heart of the team, but they are coming off a 1-0 loss to Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League on Thursday night and look a risk for short-odds backers. Remarkably, City's last victory away to a team outside the bottom six was the 6-1 at Old Trafford on October 23.
Tottenham's title challenge was all but extinguished by Sunday's 3-1 home defeat against United, but they rate a solid bet on the Asian handicap at Everton. Harry Redknapp's side have lost only one out of 10 away to teams outside the top four and should win if they show their best form.
The other bets that make most appeal in the Premier League are Sunderland on the handicap at home to Liverpool and improving Fulham on the handicap at Aston Villa. Norwich should be good enough to win at home to Wigan, although it is worth noting the bottom club have avoided defeat more times than they have lost away to teams outside the top six.
TOP 5 BETS
1 Tottenham on handicap
Still clear third-best in the Premier League and overpriced
2 Fulham on handicap
Improving fast and have more goal threat than Villa
3 Reading home win
A team to back until their winning run is halted
4 Charlton home win
Good bet to outgun low-scoring Notts County
5 Palermo home win
Strong home record makes them worth chancing at the odds
Shortlist: Tottenham, Fulham, Reading, Charlton, Palermo, Werder Bremen.