As the battle for the English Premier League title enters its fiercest stage, Luiz Felipe Scolari must have been tempted to reach once more for his favorite tome.
The Chelsea manager has regularly turned to Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" during his career, implementing ancient principles of tactical combat to reinforce the mindset of both him and his players ahead of big games.
Leading up to Sunday's clash with Manchester United at Old Trafford, Scolari is in the trenches like never before.
Despite sitting in second place in the EPL, four points clear of United, the Brazilian is under growing pressure as his first season at Stamford Bridge continues to stutter.
Chelsea remains in contention for the title thanks primarily to its excellent away form, with eight wins and two draws from 10 road games. However, Scolari's record against more accomplished opposition has raised serious questions about his suitability for the job and piled on extra heat – as did a humiliating FA Cup draw against League One side Southend United last weekend. And that gap to United is misleading since the defending champions have two games in hand thanks to their participation in the FIFA Club World Cup.
The first half of the season saw Chelsea record just five points from as many games against the Premiership's top six teams, even though four of those contests were at home. With the back end of the Blues' campaign becoming significantly harder, there is a growing sense that, while Chelsea cannot win the title this weekend, defeat would be the first step on the way to losing it.
United looks in imposing form, even more motivated and confident – if possible – than when it beat Chelsea on that infamous May night in Moscow and lifted the UEFA Champions League trophy. The Red Devils are blessed with cohesion and stability, and all Sir Alex Ferguson has had to distract him lately was an extraordinary (and, it must be said, extremely valid) rant against him by Liverpool chief Rafa Benitez, who said Ferguson shows a chronic lack of respect to referees yet gets away with it because of his fearsome reputation.
Those comments will do nothing to sway the wily old Scot from his preparations for this weekend. Ferguson knows all too well that three points Sunday would provide his team with huge momentum and deliver a crucial blow to Chelsea's chances.
Certainly, Ferguson is the happier man just now. His squad is as he wants it, and although money was available to him for January signings, he preferred to stick with his trusted disciples. Sure, young Serbians Zoran Tosic and Adem Ljacic were brought in from Partizan Belgrade, but both fit into the category of long-term projects.
Scolari, meanwhile, wants and needs to spend in the transfer window, but he is unable to do so. Owner Roman Abramovich's financial position is the subject of some speculation, for it is unknown how severely he has been affected by the global economic downturn and plummeting oil prices. Reports from England suggest Scolari, who would like to add width and variety to his attack, is deeply frustrated at the lack of funds.
Chelsea fans are deeply worried about Abramovich's current feelings toward the club he has treated as his personal plaything since buying it in 2003. Two Russian news agencies reported this week that the billionaire was considering selling up. Adding more intrigue will be the absence of Abramovich, who won't be at Old Trafford on Sunday in order to enjoy a seasonal vacation.
By the time Abramovich returns, the picture will be clearer. Chelsea will either have taken the first steps in resurrecting what looks to be a frustrating and troubled season or handed United a giant boost in its bid to clinch a third straight league title.
- Luiz Felipe Scolari
- English Premier League
- Manchester United