As he sat before the assembled journalists in the press room at Spurs Lodge and addressed the question he knew was coming, Andre Villas-Boas duly provided an appraisal of Saturday’s grudge clash between Tottenham and Chelsea which was both expected by all and believed by none.
"This is not a personal matter," he insisted. "Nor will it decide where both of these teams finish in the Premier League. After this game, there are still 30 more to play."
Of course, it is true that neither Tottenham nor Chelsea’s wider fortunes will be determined by this match, although a significant psychological advantage may be won or lost. But, regardless of what he may say in public, the first time Villas-Boas takes on his former players and assistant at White Hart Lane will carry huge personal significance for the man once dubbed 'The New Mourinho'.
Within the space of eight months at Stamford Bridge, the young Portuguese coach’s stock fell dramatically. Regarded as one of the finest maturing managerial minds in Europe on his arrival, he departed a beaten man, worn down and ultimately overcome by the myriad of challenges he faced.
There were plenty of mitigating circumstances for Villas-Boas’ chastening failure in west London. Charged with overhauling a powerful and entrenched old guard and revolutionising the philosophy of a functional but unspectacular Chelsea team. It was a monumental task, requiring resources, time and faith. He was awarded little of any, from his owner or his players.
Yet equally, the man himself did nothing to endear himself to experienced players he could not enjoy the luxury of discarding. In perpetuating an image of himself as aloof, dictatorial and arrogant, he succeeded only in dividing his squad and winning no friends within the ravenous press pack.
Upon his inevitable sacking in March, the best his most ardent supporters could argue was that he was the right man at the wrong club. In Villas-Boas, Chelsea hired a revolutionary when they needed a politician. In Roberto Di Matteo, by luck more than judgment, they eventually found him.
Re-united and re-energised, Chelsea’s aging stars proved they did, after all, have one last gasp of greatness within them. Their miraculous Champions League success enhanced their own legacies but delivered another damaging blow to their former coach’s fledgling reputation, exposing the scale of his misjudgement.
Villas-Boas, however, was not alone in viewing the Blues’ triumph with more than a measure of self-pity. Tottenham were the most tangible losers, having a hard-earned place in Europe’s premier club competition snatched away by nothing more than the cruel hands of fate.
Spurs’ misfortune cost them money, prestige and Luka Modric. The disgruntled Croatian would have been difficult to keep at White Hart Lane in any case, but the loss of Champions League football only hardened his resolve. Boss Harry Redknapp also paid the price for the late-season slump which saw his team find themselves in a situation where their destiny was no longer in their own hands.
Three points on Saturday, then, would perhaps be more satisfying for Tottenham and Villas-Boas than any. Watching the Portuguese’s outburst of unbridled, fist-pumping joy on the Old Trafford touchline after witnessing his new team’s first victory there for 23 years, one can only imagine his reaction to handing his former employers their first Premier League defeat of the season.
The omens are promising. Spurs have won four Premier League matches in a row and Chelsea have not won on their last five visits to the ground they once sneeringly referred to as “Three Point Lane”. More importantly, after a start undermined by huge transfer speculation and upheaval, Villas-Boas’ men finally appear settled and comfortable with their manager’s gameplan.
But Di Matteo’s men are not exactly doing badly either, having taken 19 points from a possible 21 to open up a four-point lead at the top of the table. Moreover, they have done it playing an expansive, thrilling brand of football, aided by the summer arrival of supreme talents Eden Hazard and Oscar. Ironically, they are now a team Villas-Boas would probably have enjoyed managing.
Spurs fans will note with no small bitterness that Chelsea’s summer of spending was only made possible by the Champions League place which was taken from them. But while the past cannot be changed, Villas-Boas and his men can at least ensure the future looks slightly less rosy at Stamford Bridge come Saturday evening.