Spurs manager returns to Chelsea seeking desperately needed points but can also settle old score with former club
It was in a hallway outside the media suite at White Hart Lane, as satisfied home supporters were still drifting out on to Bill Nicholson Way and the High Road beyond, that André Villas-Boas was asked about the reception awaiting him back at Stamford Bridge. "I have no idea," he offered, all weary unease as if it was outlandish his acrimonious divorce from Chelsea a little over a year ago might have returned to the news agenda ahead of a first return. "Hopefully the home fans are respectful but, if not, it's fine too. It makes no difference to me."
It is safe to assume the locals will have two managers upon whom to pour scorn on what could prove to be a defining evening for Tottenham Hotspur's Champions League pursuit. Spurs travel across the capital on Wednesday two points adrift of Arsenal in fourth as the teams that currently hem in Arsène Wenger's side play out their game in hand. Ferocious rivalry ensures Chelsea will not want to yield an inch to their visitors, even though Sunday's eye-catching success at Old Trafford has afforded them a hint of breathing space. Yet, for Tottenham, this is a crunch occasion. Anything other than victory would surrender the initiative to those currently gracing the top four places with time ticking down on the campaign and very little room for recovery.
There is a delicious irony that it has come to this. Rewind a little over 14 months and Villas-Boas's reputation was apparently in tatters. He had overseen training at Cobham on a Sunday morning in early March, still groggy from defeat at West Bromwich Albion the previous day, only to be summoned to a meeting by the Chelsea chief executive, Ron Gourlay. He must have realised what was to follow as soon as he found Roman Abramovich, the director Eugene Tenenbaum and the technical director, Michael Emenalo, waiting for him, the hierarchy having clicked into dismissal mode.
The club's owner and his board were unanimous in their assessment that the team were heading only one way. There had been only five wins in 16 matches in all competitions. Chelsea loitered three points outside the top four and had been saddled with a two-goal deficit from the chaotic first leg of their Champions League knockout tie against Napoli. Abramovich predicted that, while the Portuguese was in charge, the club's place in Europe's elite competition was under considerable threat. The 35-year-old makes his first return this week hoping to see that prophecy come to pass.
How Villas-Boas would love to complete his rehabilitation in English football back on the stage where his career appeared to have been prematurely derailed. Chelsea will find him rather changed from the fresh-faced, clipboard-wielding bright young thing who had cost £13.4m in compensation to prise from Porto. He claims to have learned "a great lesson" from that chastening 256-day tenure back at the club he had previously graced as José Mourinho's opposition scout. The fall-out from those spats with senior players in a hierarchical dressing room, and a refusal to deviate from the methods that had proved so successful in Portugal, were an education.
The setup at Spurs seems more receptive. His principles may remain intact – he still encourages that patient, possession-based style on the pitch – but there is more flexibility to his approach these days and more maturity to his dealings with key personnel. Admittedly, he has not had to contend with the same kind of egos at White Hart Lane. He had inherited a squad at Chelsea that had claimed a league and Cup double 12 months earlier and that could argue their trusted methods would eventually achieve success. But his current players have bought into his ideas more readily, accepting the meritocracy he promotes for the benefit of the collective. His enthusiasm and drive have rubbed off at Spurs where, across town, many merely doubted his credentials to lead.
Now, though, he must oversee a victory that would buck a long-established trend. It is more than 23 years since Gary Lineker, in between centre-halves at the far post from Nayim's delivery, nodded an 88th-minute winner past Dave Beasant to secure Spurs' last victory at Stamford Bridge. To put that into some context, that was the weekend when Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson and, more pertinently, Nelson Mandela walked free from Victor Verster prison. They have secured nine draws from the 25 visits in all competitions since. A win would feel historic.
That is what the manager is targeting, hopeful perhaps that Gareth Bale has saved one last flash of jaw-dropping quality for the biggest game yet of this campaign game. The optimist in Villas-Boas will stress that, if Chelsea, Stoke and Sunderland are beaten, Champions League football will be assured. He will place equal importance on each of those fixtures. And yet Wednesday is the contest with the subplot. He may be uncomfortable in the spotlight, but this is the Portuguese's moment.