Scolari stays calm amid Chelsea storm

LONDON - The immediate future of Chelsea, and their Brazilian manager Luiz Felipe Scolari is about as clear as the fog that almost led to the postponement of their FA Cup replay at Southend United on Wednesday.

Although many insiders believe there is little real prospect of the World Cup winning coach leaving Stamford Bridge despite fans' disgruntlement, there is plenty that needs to be put right if Chelsea are to end the season basking in the sunlight.

The confusion in west London though, is not just centred on what tactics 60-year-old Scolari should employ and who might actually be playing for or leaving the team.

Off the field there are continuing, unsettling rumours about whether Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, the man who has bankrolled the club's most successful period since their formation in 1905, is still in love with the boys in blue.

The serious questions about Scolari concern his training routines, his tinkering with his defensive formation and his relationship with the players.

An honest and open man, club sources said this week that things had never been quite the same at Chelsea since the departure of his long-serving and popular assistant coach Steve Clarke to West Ham United in September.

Clarke's "arm around the shoulder" approach to solving problems is in contrast to Scolari who openly queried some of his players' commitment this week, while also taking his share of the blame for their poor form.

In return, senior players have openly questioned his training methods and clearly, in the early stages against Southend on Wednesday, were not coping with his newly employed zonal marking plan when they went a goal down and were lucky not to trail 2-0 before winning 4-1.

However, just four defeats in his first 31 matches in charge hint he might be getting something right -- even though Chelsea have looked a pale shadow of themselves recently.

For all of their woes though, they are still third in the Premier League, only four points behind leaders Liverpool with 17 games to play.

They are also into the last 16 of the Champions League with an intriguing tie against Juventus, coached by their old boss Claudio Ranieri, and into the fourth round of the FA Cup.

CALM EYE

Scolari -- unlike his old confrontational self -- is almost the calm eye at the centre of the British media storm that has engulfed Stamford Bridge -- one that could well just turn out to be nothing more than a storm in a Brazilian coffee cup.

Yes, Scolari publicly castigated his players after their 3-0 loss at Manchester United on Sunday, and yes, he has been unable to stop a run of disappointing performances, especially at home.

But Scolari, who had coached for 25 years in Brazil, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Portugal before coming to England, is not suddenly floundering now.

He reinforced his authority by dropping one-time golden boy Didier Drogba from the squad for the game at Southend after a run of indifferent performances.

Strong managers do that, not weak ones, and Scolari is a long way from weak.

CHELSEA APPRECIATED

In many ways he has revitalised the image of the club and won over some neutral fans who enjoy a freer-flowing game than they saw under his predecessors Jose Mourinho and Avram Grant.

That has taken some doing. The last time any Chelsea teams were widely appreciated for their style was when they were winning trophies back in the 1970s.

Another Chelsea source told Reuters this week: "The problem at Chelsea is not really Scolari but a wider malaise at the club.

"It's not just training routines, training routines change all the time at football clubs, that's no big deal. The big problem at Chelsea are the rumours surrounding the owner and the departure of Steve Clarke."

The "rumours" surrounding the owner have rumbled on for a while now and another club source revealed: "I think the feeling some have is that Roman Abramovich is losing interest.

"He's a man still worth billions -- why has he blocked any transfers into Stamford Bridge this January ?"

The club and Abramovich's staff have laughed off such notions of decreasing passion and insist Chelsea is as close to his heart as ever.

New players now might not be the answer Scolari is looking for in any case. Getting the best out of the ones he has at his disposal is Chelsea's easiest way out of the gloom.


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