The old immutable law of the ex ensured that Glen Johnson would be the man to pop up with the late winner that helped his current club beat his old employers on Sunday. It is a law that was never likely to apply to Fernando Torres, who was granted only a fleeting appearance in the final stages but still managed to convey the impression of a man out of touch with whatever qualities persuaded Roman Abramovich to spend £50m to take him to Stamford Bridge last January.
In a dozen attempts, Chelsea have still not managed to beat a Liverpool team managed by Kenny Dalglish. A 1-0 defeat in the equivalent fixture last season, when Torres made a spectacularly hapless debut a few days after his arrival at Stamford Bridge, did no good to Carlo Ancelotti's hopes of remaining at the club that he had led to a league and FA Cup Double the previous season. Now there is the question of how long André Villas-Boas, his expensively acquired successor, can cling on to the position.
Three of Chelsea's last four league matches in the past month have ended in varying forms of ignominy. The representatives of a club into which the owner has poured around £750m would not have expected to lose by the only goal to the newly promoted Queens Park Rangers at humble Loftus Road. The subsequent 5-3 home defeat at Arsenal's hands would have been simply unthinkable during the reign of José Mourinho, whose achievements his fellow Portuguese was employed to emulate.
Mourinho drew criticism towards the end of his time in London for sending out teams that played with a pragmatism inappropriate to the amount of money lavished on assembling their components, not to mention out of sync with the owner's desire to see attractive football, but in his time there were plenty of 4-0 wins and absolutely no outright humiliations of the sort inflicted by Arsène Wenger's players.
That was followed by a 1-0 victory at Ewood Park, at a time when beating Blackburn Rovers is no indication of a team's quality. And then, following the international break, came this calamitous last-minute collapse, the result of the sort of indiscipline that would have had Mourinho frothing at the mouth. Abramovich paid Porto £13m in compensation for allowing Villas-Boas to leave before the end of his contract. Had he stayed, no doubt he would have maintained the extraordinary success of his first season, when his players won four trophies, including the Europa League, and went through the Portuguese league season unbeaten. But winning the Europa Cup at the age of 33 is not the same as winning the European Cup at 41, as Mourinho did.
"The owner did not pay €15m to get me out of Porto to pay another fortune to get me out of here," Villas-Boas said on Sunday night, with more bravado than realism. If Abramovich is not distracted from football matters by his attempt to convince the high court that it would be wrong to order him to pass over a substantial part of his bank balance to his former partner Boris Berezovsky, he will think nothing of paying whatever amount of compensation is stipulated in his young manager's contract. This is a man who shocked the art world by spending £63m at auction on works by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud three years ago, smashing records of all kinds in order to please his girlfriend.
Over Villas-Boas's shoulder lurks the shadow of Guus Hiddink, newly unemployed as a result of Turkey's inability to make it through last week's Euro 2012 play-offs. That failure, and Russia's non-qualification for the 2010 World Cup, are unlikely to damage the Dutchman's standing in the eyes of Abramovich, who retains a warm memory of the way he stepped into the breach following the dismissal of Luiz Felipe Scolari in 2009, rebuilt the dressing-room morale and guided the team to victory in the FA Cup. His time may come again, and soon, if the Russian becomes convinced that doing nothing would result in Villas-Boas having another crack at the Europa League next season, this time with a team who have competed in the senior competition for the past eight seasons.
For all Villas-Boas's talk of setting out to "build something new at this club", there have been few signs of original thinking since his arrival. Mikel John Obi is apparently still his idea of an acceptable holding midfield player, although that may change after Sunday's first half. The 24-year-old allowed himself to be dispossessed by Charlie Adam in the 33rd minute, setting up the slick exchange of passes that led to the opening goal. Claude Makelele could play until his 100th birthday without committing such a faux-pas. No longer a much-coveted teenage prodigy, Mikel has conspicuously failed to train on and did not reappear after the interval.
With John Terry and Ashley Cole now on the downslope of their careers, and David Luiz so erratic, Chelsea's most urgent problem concerns a defence which Mourinho once made as formidable, in its way, as George Graham's famous Arsenal rearguard. Villas-Boas said that he has the players with whom to address the deficiencies. His ability to deploy them in the coming weeks will determine whether he sees out the season.