Jose Mourinho saw this coming. As Chelsea hosts Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday evening in the knowledge that a once promising season is stuttering just as it needs to be gathering momentum, Mourinho's in-season prognosis is slowly being realized.
Recent defeats to Aston Villa and Crystal Palace have relegated the Blues to the clear third favorite behind Liverpool and Manchester City in the race for the Premier League title, while a 3-1 defeat at the Parc des Princes last Wednesday means only a performance to rival the miraculous heroics of two years ago can keep the club's Champions League hopes alive.
Last six games
Mourinho saw it coming. Throughout the season his assertions that Chelsea is not a serious title contender, even as his team brazenly competes for the title, have been dismissed as a trademark attempt to remove pressure from his players. His contention in February that the Blues were the “little horses” up against Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal was widely regarded as laughable – unlike the dozens of tired jokes the metaphor spawned.
But such an assumption ignores what we know about the way Mourinho works. At his unveiling as Porto manager in January 2002, he stated he was “absolutely sure” the club would be champion the following season. In the two triumphant campaigns of his first spell at Chelsea, the Special One never flinched from proclaiming publicly that his team would win the league.
At Inter, Mourinho went to war with Marcello Lippi after the World Cup winner had dared to suggest that Juventus would beat his Inter side to the Serie A crown in the 2009/10 season. At Real Madrid, he pledged to end Barcelona’s La Liga dominance in his second year and did.
It is not part of the traditional Mourinho mindset to dampen expectations. If he is convinced he has the best team in the land he is not shy about saying it.
Perhaps, then, the reason why he keeps telling everyone this Chelsea side is not ready is because he truly believes it. In this context, the apparent sincerity of Mourinho's words implies a realism not a million miles from the 'defeatism' David Moyes has been so castigated for since his arrival at Manchester United.
Admittedly even if silverware eludes the Blues, a third-place finish (at worst) and a return to the Champions League knockout stages undeniably constitutes progress after last season’s annus horribilis, salvaged at the death with a Europa League triumph under Rafa Benitez.
But it would also be only the fourth trophyless season of the Roman Abramovich era, and just the second of Mourinho’s astonishingly successful managerial career. By the exceptionally high standards which the Special One judges himself and Chelsea’s uncompromising owner judges his managers, that is failure.
History tells us that if Chelsea falls short this season questions will be asked at Stamford Bridge, and even Mourinho’s legendary status at the club cannot shield him entirely from criticism.
Many might begin by countering the Portuguese’s increasingly bold condemnation of his strikers by asking why Romelu Lukaku was allowed to join Everton on loan last August. The Belgian has scored 14 Premier League goals this season – just one less than Samuel Eto’o, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba combined – and spearheaded the Merseysiders’ surprisingly earnest top four challenge.
Mourinho has allowed his relationship with Lukaku to deteriorate to such an extent that the 20-year-old’s agent, Christophe Henrotay, has openly admitted he is trying to find his client a new club. For a supposedly masterful man-manager to have so alienated a phenomenal youngster who, with the right guidance, could become Chelsea’s next great striker is nothing short of baffling.
All the while, for Torres, Ba and, to a lesser extent, Eto'o, that most precious of commodities enjoyed by strikers - confidence - can hardly have been enhanced by such public criticism.
Then there is the issue of Oscar. In his eagerness to demonstrate that Juan Mata did not figure in his plans, Mourinho appeared to forget that his prodigiously talented chosen playmaker needed a rest after a 70-game season and an intense summer spent with Brazil at the Confederations Cup.
If selected against PSG, the 22-year-old Brazilian will make his 114th appearance for club and country since August 2012, and it is clear the relentless exertion has taken its toll. After an impressive first half of the campaign Oscar has been largely anonymous as a creative force since January, unable to provide inspiration just as his teammates need it most.
With the main playmaker running on empty and Willian, Andre Schurrle and Mohamed Salah still feeling their way into English football, the burden of responsibility has fallen ever more squarely on the shoulders of Eden Hazard. Under Mourinho the brilliant Belgian has reached a new level of application and consistency but, whenever he fails to ignite, so invariably does Chelsea.
Again, explanation of such ills cannot realistically be made without considering Mourinho's role in them.
Last of all is the question which might be troubling Abramovich more than any other: Where exactly is Mourinho taking this team?
His second coming at Chelsea was always a surprising reunion. Before he departed under a cloud in September 2007 Mourinho, it was claimed, could no longer tolerate the interference of Abramovich and his advisors. Abramovich, it was claimed, longed for a more technically thrilling, expansive, attacking style of play. If so, why has the Russian once again tasked this man with realizing his vision?
For while Mourinho’s ‘Chelsea 2.0’ is not a carbon copy of his first side, it is clear he is determined to stay true to his counterattacking principles. This season the Blues have been at their best in the transition, punishing teams who dare to push up against them or can be pressed into giving the ball up in dangerous areas. Those who defend deep and in numbers cause more problems.
It is why this Chelsea's title challenge is more likely to be defined by games against Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and West Brom than showdowns with City, Arsenal or Liverpool. It is also why the prospect of a highly accomplished PSG side with a two-goal lead to defend on Tuesday is such an intimidating one.
There is, of course, one way to silence the critics.
Mourinho knows it well, because for much of the past 12 years it has been his way. Winning trophies has been his shield as well as a special habit. One more before the season is out will make him untouchable again. Nothing else will suffice.
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