Andre Villas-Boas says he doesn't need the support of Chelsea's players, he only needs the support of Roman Abramovich. Has he been asleep these last few years? It's understandable if he has, he's only young after all.
The young buck's right though. Sir Alex Ferguson has never been afraid to rip it up and start all over again at Manchester United - see 1995, Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy - and that's what Chelsea must do now. Sometimes too much attention is placed on Abramovich's opening the trap door Monty Burns-style and leaving a manager swimming in a tank of electric sharks. Sacking Claudio Ranieri meant they got Jose Mourinho. Sacking Uncle Avram meant they were no longer managed by Uncle Avram. Sacking Luiz Felipe Scolari meant hiring Guus Hiddink and finishing in the top four. The mistakes, you won't need telling, were sacking Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, and then messing up the hiring process.
It's time to back Villas-Boas then, not to lose faith in a project that's less than a year old. The Portuguese is of course far from perfect and has made his fair share of mistakes, but he has correctly identified that this time has run its course. Come summer, Jay Tee, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba should all be out, and Villas-Boas should be backed accordingly in the transfer market. If he then fails with his own team - and only then - he should be sacked. But let's not lose sight of the fact that he's only doing what should have arguably been done two years ago. After all, how will history judge this Chelsea team? For all the money and talent, they've actually won very little. Arsene Wenger is right about one thing, no one really cares about domestic trophies, and Chelsea have won one fairly lucky league title since 2006 and have done very little in Europe since 2009. Just like with England, maybe it's the players, stupid.
There are going to be a few empty seats at Stamford Bridge today. My Chelsea mate is sat on his sofa, having deigned not to spend £40 on an FA Cup tie against a Championship side. Easy to be blase about it, but Birmingham, despite missing Nikola Zigic and Marlon King, have the capacity to give Villas-Boas yet another headache. After a tricky start to the season, in which they were stretched by a small squad and the demands of the Europa League, Chris Hughton has settled them down, and they are now the division's form side, along with Blackpool. An instant return to the Premier League is starting to look increasingly likely with each passing game. They haven't lost for two months now, a run of 13 games. And for those who like their omens, Birmingham will have good memories from their last cup tie in London.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, David Luiz, Bertrand; Ramires, Mikel, Meireles; Sturridge, Torres, Mata. Subs: Hilario, Essien, Lampard, Drogba, Malouda, Bosingwa, Kalou.
Birmingham (4-5-1): Doyle; Carr, Davies, Ibanez, Murphy; Redmond, Mutch, Fahey, Gomis, Elliott; Rooney. Subs: Butland, Caldwell, Spector, Burke, Reilly, Asante, Jervis.
Referee: Martin Atkinson.
On ESPN, Ray Stubbs, Kevin Keegan and John Barnes are popping up all over the pitch. They started off huddled around a table in the corner of the pitch by the Matthew Harding Stand, and now they're chatting by the tunnel. Who thought this was a good idea? Not Martin Keown, that's for sure.
Birmingham are wearing yellow shirts. That didn't work out too well for Arsenal in midweek.
First whine of the day! "Your Chelsea "lucky" title comment would not have the stench of a hater behind it if you had also stated they were 'unlucky' to not win two CL titles, but that wouldn't fit your narrative," says Nicholas. "You are comparing foreign buys, Staam and Ruud, to getting rid of Cole, Terry and Lampard? Surely you can see the monumental difference. Give me the equivalent of local players being jettisoned in their League."
Chelsea were lucky, they wouldn't have won the title in 2010 if Wayne Rooney hadn't been injured. Over the course of seven years, they have only been in one Champions League final. Draw your own conclusions. As for the local players, since you demand it, David Beckham, Mark Hughes, Roy Keane and Paul Ince. Glad to help. I seem to remember Liverpool selling Robbie Fowler as well.
Peep! Chelsea get us going, attacking from right to left in the first half. Or the Shed End, for those that know their Stamford Bridge.
2 min: Birmingham have Steven Carr, the original Paul Scholes, at right-back. His first touch is booed by the home fans. He played for Tottenham, you see.
4 min: Birmingham fans are taunting Andre Villas-Boas with chants of "you're getting sacked in the morning". Come on, who could be bothered to sack someone on a Sunday morning? Especially when Sunday Supplement's on. Maybe he'll be sacked this evening.
6 min: As predicted, there are a lot of empty seats dotted around the ground today. It's almost as if football supporters have had enough of being taken for a ride!
7 min: The match is settling into a pattern now, Chelsea probing without much penetration, Birmingham sitting back and challenging the hosts to break them down. There's been no danger of it yet, with Chelsea's moves breaking down whenever they approach the Birmingham area. The visitors have barely broken out of their half though.
9 min: "Roy Keane is not English," notes Gavin Burke. "Neither is Mark Hughes. Are you a troll or a professional journalis?" Yes, clearly comparing the captain of Manchester United with the captain of Chelsea is an awful point. Stupid me! I'll be off to collect my P45 now.
11 min: The first glimpse of the promising Nathan Redmond, who dashes down the left flank and wins a corner off Ivanovic. That's encouraging for Birmingham. The corner is whipped into a dangerous area by the near post. It goes over Ramires's head, and David Luiz enjoys a huge slice of luck as his clearing header hits the unwitting Murphy, standing nearby, and the ball drops a few yards wide of the left post.
13 min: Birmingham have had to make an early change, Steven Carr replaced by the slayer of Manchester United, Jonathan Spector. Carr was injured after a collision with Ryan Bertrand a few minutes ago, although it was purely accidental on the Chelsea left-back's part.
16 min: From the right, Sturridge curls a cross to the far post. Spector is caught under the ball, but Mata can't quite bring it under his spell. It would have been magnificent control if he had though. "Chelsea should have sold JT and Lampard junior to Citeh and Barca 2 years ago when they had the chance," says Alec Cochrane. "They'd have made money which they could have spent on team players or invested in youth." Imagine Lampard grappling with tiki-taka.
18 min: Chelsea's fans hurl abuse at the ever-unpopular Mikel after he aimlessly pings a horrible pass straight through to Doyle in the Birmingham goal. Chelsea appear to have very few ideas at the moment. Birmingham are extremely comfortable. Torres has barely touched the ball yet.
GOAL! Chelsea 0-1 Birmingham (Murphy, 20 min): They're not just comfortable, they're leading! Redmond forced Ivanovic to concede another corner on the left, and again Fahey sent it into the near post, where it was flicked into the six-yard box. Curtis Davies tried and failed with an overhead kick, but with the Chelsea defence all over the place, the ball fell to the unmarked Murphy at the far post and he volleyed past Petr Cech. Oh Chelsea.
22 min: PENALTY TO CHELSEA! An instant chance to get back into it, as Elliott hangs out a leg and sends Ramires tumbling.
23 min: JUAN MATA'S PENALTY IS SAVED! Oh, it's all going wrong for Chelsea here. It wasn't a great penalty. He tried to place it in the bottom-left corner, but it wasn't quite in the corner and Doyle got down to push it on to the post.
25 min: "Is AVB blowing on an imaginary trumpet in your photo? Possibly essaying the melody of "I should be so lucky"?" honks Gary Naylor.
26 min: Chelsea's response to Birmingham's opener has been good. Sturridge hares down the right and slides a low ball into the six-yard box. Torres tries to get on the end of the cross, but Davies is on hand to deny him, and as the ball loops up, Doyle claims it.
27 min: Chelsea want another penalty after Sturridge went down under a challenge from Ibanez. He made a bit of a meal of that one. Behind the goal, the Birmingham fans aren't too happy with him judging by the gestures they're making.
31 min: If there are any Napoli scouts in the crowd, they are not going to be impressed if what they're watching. Chelsea just look a bit confused right now, as if they're not quite sure what style of football they're meant to be playing. This project is going to require some serious faith.
32 min: "Hmm, AVB is surely clearing his throat, guilty man in the dock style, before attempting another overoptimistic defense of his position?" says Ryan Dunne. "Personally I quite like AVB, and it will be sad to see his project go down in flames. The dude should ignore (or transfer list) the haterz and rock a bit of this."
34 min: David Luiz surges forward from the back and is sent flying by Jordan Mutch, who's booked. The free-kick is around 30 yards from goal, just to the left. It's Luiz who takes it, and he brings a decent save out of Doyle, who just pushes the Brazilian's effort over the top.
36 min: Birmingham ping the ball from right to left to Murphy, who cushions a beautiful volleyed pass in behind the Chelsea defence for Redmond. From a fairly tight angle, he tries to pull his shot across Cech, but the goalkeeper is more than equal to the effort.
38 min: Sturridge drops a delicious cross from the left towards the far post, but it's just too far for Ivanovic, the ball running out for a goal-kick. "And you say Curtis Davies attempted an overhead kick?" says Anthony Hull. "Damn it, why aren't I watching this match live?" Attempted. While he did induce some panic in the Chelsea defence, all he did was miss the ball and fall over.
39 min: This is Chelsea's best moment of the match so far. A long ball is launched towards
Kevin Davies Fernando Torres, who does well to knock it down for Sturridge. His control sets him up invitingly for a volley, and from 30 yards out, his brilliant left-footer loops inches over the angle of post and bar. That would have been a wonderful goal.
41 min: Mikel rams a drive a few yards wide of the right post from 35 yards out. He reacts to the miss with an anguished expression on his face, which is fairly surprising given that he never scores.
42 min: Dissent among the ranks here: Chelsea's fans are singing for Jose Mourinho. Would he really go back after the way he left?
43 min: Chelsea are mostly just hitting hopeful shots from long-range or sending hopeful long balls in Torres's general direction. This is not good. "Regarding the picture, I think AVB is doing a schoolboy-style "slip a Polo into your mouth stealthily lest teacher ask if you have enough for the rest of the class" thing," says Tom Prankerd. I once got chucked out of a lesson for chewing gum, despite the fact I wasn't chewing gum.
45 min: Ivanovic bustles past a weak challenge on the right and crosses low towards Torres. He can't control the ball, but it sits up well for Mata, whose insta-header towards the right corner is smartly held by Doyle, who could have been taken by surprise there.
45 min+1: There will be one minute of stoppage time. "Rafa would be an ideal replacement at Plastic Bridge as he would peer into Nando's eyes and the glory year would come flooding back," says Ian Copestake. "The fans would hate him (Rafa, I mean), but since when were football clubs (Feb. 20, 1992) anything other than privately contemptuous of their fans."
Peep! Peep! Boo!
Half time: Chelsea 0-1 Birmingham.
Half time emails.
"Just a comment on your opinion of AVB's position," says Iain Lawrence. "I think this stuff about him needing his own team is a red-herring. AVB's biggest problem is himself; he's not manager material. Think Brown and Blair. AVB is Brown; decent number two, expert in his own field; cannot lead for toffee. Chelsea's problems are to do with player performance and confidence. AVB is an autocrat and talks about 'projects' in the same way dreary accountants talk about 'resourses' when they mean people. If a team ever needed a mature 'man-manager' its this Chelsea side." Phil Brown's out of work.
"Chelsea fans singing for Jose Mourinho?" says Simon Demissie. "Does anyone know if Porto fans were singing for him during their defeat to City on Thursday? With Inter's fans doing the same last night three different clubs' fans on three successive days singing for one man would surely be a record. One for The Knowledge, perhaps."
"Everyone seems to be giving out about AVB, Football and life in general," says David Clarke. "Its far to early for Whine even in a glass, AVB has more money than I ever will and a great view of the match to be fair, and when will we expect the expected about football in general today?. Im playing a very intense game of Jenga with my flatmate if anyone one would prefer a MBM report on this?"
46 min: You won't be surprised to learn that Fernando Torres has been given the hook at half time. Didier Drogba is on, back from the Africa Cup of Nations. He was leading an impassioned team-talk on the pitch before the second half started. What sort of message does that send out? "As a Liverpudlian now 'slumming it' in west London, I'd like to throw my weight behind Ian Copestake's suggestion of Rafa at Chelsea," says Owen Woolcock. "Chelsea fans should ask these questions, answering Rafa or AVB: Who's managed Chelsea's £50m asset during his best run of form anywhere in the world? Rafa. Who's got a better chance of beating Napoli over two legs, and having a solid run in the European Cup thereafter? Rafa. What other manager loves zonal marking? Rafa. Who's the best manager in England for finishing fourth and no higher? Rafa. Seriously though, Chelsea could do worse: with Hiddink taken, none of their other candidates are available right now."
48 min: "As an experienced keyboard warrior you can't claim Chelsea were lucky to win the league in 2010 and then ignore how unlucky they were not to reach the champions league final the year before," says Alex Hanton. "And only in the era of Lord Ferg could a team be decried for having won only 3 league titles. That's just my opinion of course but I think everyone would agree that its better than yours and possibly club together to buy me a small present. Now if you'll excuse me I'm off to solve the world's economic problems by calling someone a Nazi on Cif." Yes, they were unlucky in 2009, although I doubt they would have beaten United in the final. But my point was that they'd done nothing in Europe since then. Also, Chelsea were the richest side in England for years, and won the two league titles under Mourinho when the competition was much weaker. United were a rabble.
50 min: ESPN are reporting that John Terry paid a visit to Martin Atkinson at half time. What on earth could that have been about?
51 min: "I feel like your preamble is a tad contradictory,: says Sindre Haugetraa. "You say Ancelotti's sacking was a mistake, but you also argue (albeit briefly) that the Chelsea squad should have been renewed two years prior. Now, I agree that Ancelotti should not have been sacked in the manner he did, but, as a Chelsea fan, I completely backed it since he didn't have a long-term vision for the club. Chelsea needed personnel renewing, and Ancelotti indirectly admitted in the past that he was not a man to do so (by stating his job is not to buy/sell players, but to put them on the field and have them win). Ancelotti at AC Milan is a reasonable example of how he, overall, struggled to replace the spine of the squad once they started aging. AVB, at least, brings in a project ala Mourinho." Fair point.
53 min: Chelsea are yet to cause Birmingham any undue bother in this half yet. Salomon Kalou is getting ready to come on. "When I was 15 a rather erratic northern Irish teacher made me leave the class because he didn't like the way I entered - I was chewing gum - not sure there actually was a written rule against it actually," says Aidan Costello. "Anyway, standing outside the class the teacher responsible for DISCIPLINE who liked caning asked why I was outside class. I said that the geog teacher didn't like the way I entered class - it was a quick verdict. Had to bend over and take four whacks of the cane. Those were the days!" Good times.
54 min: The slowest race of all time ends with Gary Cahill being booked for hauling back Adam Rooney.
56 min: Mutch and Redmond carry out the old Anderton-Sheringham routine with a corner from the right, but from 15 yards out, Redmond can't control his fierce shot, which sails well over the bar. That was a great chance.
58 min: Ironic cheers from the Chelsea fans as Mikel is replaced by Salomon Kalou.
59 min: Mata pulls down a long pass from Luiz out of the air brilliantly, killing it with one touch, only to slice his right-footed shot wide of the right post from the edge of the area. "Owen Woolcock's impassioned argument for getting Rafa in at Chelsea (46th minute) clearly needs to be read to the soundtrack of Shaft," says Ben Paul.
GOAL! Chelsea 1-1 Birmingham (Sturridge, 61 min): This is an excellent goal and the relief around Stamford Bridge is palpable. Ivanovic curls a superb cross into the area from the right and Sturridge is left alone six yards out to glance a header into the left corner, the ball hitting the inside of the post on its way in. Doyle could only stand and watch.
63 min: Drogba hoicks a cross into the box, but under pressure Kalou heads over. "Just for the record, the Porto fans I met in Porto two weeks ago are not keen on Mourinho," says Nick Kearney. "They feel he deserted them."
65 min: Rooney is now extremely isolated. Birmingham are struggling to get forward to support him. It could be a long 25 minutes.
68 min: "You must really hate Chelsea!!" toots Prithvi Raj Krishna. "United were the lucky to win the league last year 'coz half the teams were too busy with their own problems to care! Hadn't Ray wilkins been sacked or Essien, Frank not been injured , Chelsea would have topped the league by 15 points. 3 Leagues in what 7 years? How may did Sir Alex win in the first 5-6 years of his charge?" It's not a criticism, you can only beat what's in front of you, but what was in front of Chelsea, who could buy whoever they wanted at the time, was nothing to be scared of. United were poor, Liverpool had Djimi Traore and Arsenal's Invincibles were finished. Of course they were going to win the league, and the way they did it was impressive, but it was hardly a surprise. It's the same with Manchester City now.
70 min: Ramires pops a ball to Mata on the right and the Spaniard volleys a cross first-time into the six-yard box. It's deflected out into the area, and Ivanovic is only stopped getting a shot on goal by a terrific challenge from Elliott.
71 min: Birmingham bring on Jake Jervis for Adam Rooney.
73 min: Mata's corner is headed out to the edge of the area, where Meireles's volley is deflected, clatters through a load of volleys and flies just over. Doyle had no idea where that was heading.
74 min: "Please qualify why you "doubt Chelsea would've beaten United in the final"??" says Charles Warren. "We beat United in 2009 under Hiddink, we only lost one game under him, and we have an excellent record against them in the Premier League era?" Did they? When did Chelsea play United under Hiddink? I think United, who finished miles ahead of Chelsea, winning their third title in a row, would have beaten them, especially as they were the defending champions and had Cristiano Ronaldo.
77 min: The impressive Mutch is clipped from behind around 30 yards from goal. At last, Birmingham have a chance to give Chelsea something to think about in the second half. Mutch drives it low through the wall, a bit like Didi Hamman against England in 2000, but Cech gets down well to save.
79 min: Colin Doyle seems to have pulled a muscle in his leg. "I think what Chelsea need is a manager who can deliver seven years of stable, fourth place blah, where winning anything is secondary to having a nice stadium, endlessly developing a "young team" that underperforms, but in which have groundless "belief", and balancing the books," says Damian Durrant. "Please have Wenger, please..."
80 min: Meireles clips a hopeful shot wide from 30 yards. "I'm a 52 year old lifelong Birmingham fan finding myself not too bothered that I can't see the match live," says Philip Norris. "I remember being horrified when my dad said that he had lost interest in football as we made our way home from St Andrews in the smog, forty odd years ago, but now I understand exactly where he was coming from. It's not just the racism, diving, whining etc but the non existence of a good old muddy pitch. Bring em back and the excitement will surely return."
82 min: Frank Lampard will be on shortly.
83 min: More boos ring out around the ground as Juan Mata is replaced by Frank Lampard. Stamford Bridge is not a happy place right now. Chris Burke also comes on for Wade Elliott.
86 min: Drogba's backheel sends Ivanovic haring into the area, and he crumples in a heap after a fairly clumsy challenge from Murphy. He screams for a penalty, but Martin Atkinson awards a corner. It could have been given.
87 min: What a chance for Redmond to win it! David Luiz steps out of the Chelsea defence to win a header, leaving a gap through the middle. Jervis slips Redmond in but, reluctant to use his left foot, his tame right-foot shot rolls apologetically to Cech. "Chelsea under Hiddink picked up just as many points as United did (with United playing a game more in that time)," says Moses Muchapir. "I think to say they would have lost to United in that final is utter nonsense. I appreciate that it would have been a tough game, but I feel Chelsea where the stronger side in the spring. They certainly did a better job of giving Barcelona a game and should have won at Stamford Bridge." Yes, utter nonsense to suggest that Manchester United would win ever win a game. Nonsense. What have they ever won anyway?
90 min: This time Ivanovic does get the decision, going down under a sloppy challenge just outside the D. This is surely made for Drogba.
90 min+1: Sturridge leaves it, Drogba runs over it, Lampard slams it straight into the wall. Birmingham have two minutes to hold on.
90 min+2: David Luiz picks up a booking for sending Spector flying in the middle of Chelsea's half. One last chance for Birmingham...
90 min+3: ... But Curtis Davies's header from Mutch's free-kick is straight at Cech.
Full time: Chelsea 1-1 Birmingham. The final whistle blows and you won't be surprised to hear it's greeted by loud boos. Chelsea have been held at home by the Championship's Birmingham City, who were well worth their draw and now have the chance to win the tie at St Andrews. Will Andre Villas-Boas still be around by then?