The stop-start Premier League season never seems to get properly under way until after the October international break, but when England's final competitive match of the year is over and domestic routine returns it does so on Saturday with a typically fascinating encounter when Chelsea visit White Hart Lane.
The league leaders have made the sort of start to the season that is already worrying those who predicted the title would be comfortably staying in Manchester, and Roberto Di Matteo does not seem to be suffering from second season syndrome either, though the focus of attention when Spurs test their new-found confidence against Chelsea's recently recovered authority is bound to be the dapper figure on the home touchline whose removal in March appeared to lift the clouds over Stamford Bridge and set the club on the path to European success.
André Villas-Boas spent most of his eight months at Chelsea being lonely, unloved and little understood, to such an extent that Tottenham supporters only gave him the wariest of welcomes when he replaced Harry Redknapp in the summer. That pessimism seemed likely to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy when an opening-day defeat at Newcastle was followed by disappointing home draws against West Bromwich and then Norwich, and just three league games into his new tenure Villas-Boas was having to confront audible boos from his own supporters.
It did not look too promising, yet since then Spurs have put together a four-match winning sequence, including their first victory at Old Trafford in the Premier League era, and while it is still too early to conclude that Villas-Boas has salvaged his managerial reputation and may yet give Chelsea cause to regret parting with him, it is much harder now to find a Tottenham fan who still believes the club made a colossal mistake in moving out Redknapp and going for a much younger man.
So, AVB, with apologies to EBB, who did after all publish her poem in a collection called Sonnets from the Portuguese, how does WHL love thee? Let us count the ways. He takes the Europa League seriously for a start, as you would if it was the high point of your CV and your recommendation to English football in the first place. He seems to have a shrewder grasp of tactics too, and more of a commitment to setting up the team with a midfield that protects the back four as well as moving the ball forward to the men up front.
Losing a player of Luka Modric's ability cannot have been easy, but utilising two holding midfielders has helped Villas-Boas cope. Moussa Dembélé has managed to fit in and Spurs still have Scott Parker to come back, which should allow Dembélé to take up a more creative role.
Villas-Boas is still getting to know his players and their capabilities, and has made one or two positional mistakes, though he has shown a willingness to make corrective changes and an ability to make decisions while a match is in progress. He also trusts his players enough to know when they can play out of position. Faced with the injuries that prompted a backline reshuffle against Manchester United, many doubt Redknapp would have been flexible enough to switch Jan Vertonghen to left-back and promote Steven Caulker from the reserves. The former manager was frequently accused of lacking faith in Tottenham's youth products, and would have tended to regard Vertonghen as a centre-half and nothing more. The Belgian not only adapted easily to playing left-back at Old Trafford, he also scored the opening goal, while Caulker capped a promising performance by thanking Villas-Boas for his confidence. "The manager has pushed a few of us forward," he said. "It's not nice when there are favourites. Players trying to break into the first team need to know that if they are training well and playing well they will get a chance."
Adebayor waiting, Villas-Boas has managed to get the best out of Jermain Defoe, and a player who often appeared surplus to requirements under Redknapp has been transformed into a reliable striker. And though many feel a little sorry for Brad Friedel and the arbitrary way his record of 310 consecutive appearances came to an end, as least they respect Villas-Boas for making an unsentimental decision. A somewhat embarrassed Villas-Boas was at pains to point out that dropping Friedel for the game against Aston Villa was in no way a reflection on his form this season, which has been excellent, it was just that he had no intention of keeping Hugo Lloris waiting indefinitely after signing the France goalkeeper on transfer deadline day. Spurs supporters realise that at 41 Friedel cannot be regarded as a long-term goalkeeping solution, and they also know that there were times last season, before AVB arrived, when Friedel did not appear quite so sprightly and unchallengeable as he has done in the last few weeks.
Stories are already circulating that Friedel might be recalled for the Chelsea game, as Villas-Boas attempts to name his strongest possible side, though such an overt statement of preference is hardly likely to improve relations with Lloris. The manager is in a damned if he does, damned if he doesn't position, and perhaps has been ever since such a high-profile goalkeeper was brought in when there was no immediate need, but having made one tough decision, the easiest course might be to stick with it.
One goalkeeper is bound to end up unhappy, and from a purely managerial perspective it ought to be the 41-year-old one rather than the 25-year-old current international. Villas-Boas has already had to distance himself from reports he was reluctant to bring Lloris to the club, which was not the start to his career in England the goalkeeper was hoping to make, though compared to the false start the former Porto manager made in the Premier League the present uncertainty over the goalkeeping pecking-order is a minor complication.
Villas-Boas has done most of the difficult things necessary to reinvent himself as a successful manager in this country, and now stands on the brink of redemption. It would be too trite to say his reputation rests entirely on Saturday's outcome against his old employer but, based on the evidence from Old Trafford, if he gets the result he is looking for the Villas-Boas celebrations could surpass anything we have so far seen.
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image: © Vladimir Maiorov