Blues’ Italian renaissance will hurt Jose
TEN games into a season usually tell us the story. Leicester were the Haley’s Comet exception but this time the top four look as if they could stay the top four. The managers are the stars and the story is still Jose Mourinho.
If it were possible for his weekend to get any worse after being sent to the stands, denied a plausible penalty, denied a goal by a superhuman keeper and sinking to eighth in the table behind Watford, Antonio Conte’s Italian renaissance at Chelsea ensured that it did.
Their 2-0 win at Southampton was a classic Mourinho performance – old Mourinho, with a few key refinements. Yes, the bus – or autobus – was parked but Italian style with three at the back. A highly motivated team made the most of 45% possession, counter-attacked with purpose and was ruthless in front of goal.
It would not have made pleasant viewing for Mourinho, ensconced in the solitary confinement of his 5-star hotel. For this was essentially his team, his players but playing for a Premier League rookie in a way they had refused to do for him during that final, mutinous campaign.
The goalscorers, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, have been rejuvenated and are rediscovering the form they showed during his title-winning season – before it all imploded. So, too, is Nemanja Matic who is benefitting from having the relentless N’Golo Kante alongside in midfield to do the running instead of a reluctant Cesc Fabregas.
And then there’s Victor Moses, a player whom Mourinho regarded as no more than a spare part to be loaned out to lesser mortals, a revelation at wing-back while Pedro – another whose fires he failed to light – is showing his Barcelona form.
Making the transformation of this Chelsea side even more remarkable is that it has been achieved without ‘Mr Chelsea’ himself, John Terry. ‘The captain, leader, legend’ had been the last man standing of the old Mourinho guard and when he turned his ankle at Swansea on September 11, you feared for the Blues.
Gary Cahill was not the same without the skipper to hold his hand and no one could understand why the capricious David Luiz had been brought back. Hammerings by Liverpool and Arsenal duly followed.
At that stage, it looked as if Conte, like a couple of his peers, had a bigger job on his hands than he’d bargained for. Like Mourinho, he’d been denied his first-choice signings in the transfer window and three consecutive lunches with Roman Abramovich provided plenty of food for thought about his future.
But he has not won three Scudettos for nothing and, after learning English in record time, showed further impressive adaptability with his formation and manmanagement. Manic on the touchline, measured with the media, he is an enigma who was initially hard to read, but on the evidence of four straight league wins without a goal conceded, it looks as if he’s already turned Mourinho’s mutineers into title contenders.
Chelsea were the first love of the Special One’s life in England and everyone at Stamford Bridge already appears over their acrimonious divorce. Not so the manager in what he calls his “dream job”. Just as Sam Allardyce found with England, in football you have to be careful what you wish for and there hasn’t even been a honeymoon.
In truth, Manchester United are doing better than Mourinho – they are not playing that badly but are not getting the breaks. Burnley was one of those games when the ball simply refuses to go in, but the manager isn’t helping himself. Indeed, there is a suspicion that he’s already weighed down with the size of the club, the size of the task. The dream may already be turning into a bit of a nightmare.
He now knows that four signings were not enough – especially when one is already persona non grata and another injured. His ostracism of Henrikh Mkhitaryan is perplexing – he paid £27m for him – while the way he banished Germany World Cupwinning captain Bastian Schweinsteiger might have alerted Human Rights Watch had Louis van Gaal not sanctioned a salary of £170,000 a week.
No one – least of all the two players – seems to know what heinous crime they’ve committed while adding to the mystery is that both are veteran international midfielders – an area where United have lacked a little dynamism in recent weeks.
Mourinho’s touchline demeanour of Buddha-like stoicism enlivened by occasional explosions suggests he is all too conscious of being on his best behaviour only to lose the plot when the tipping point is reached. His complaint about a life of lonely luxury was surely an uncharacteristic cry for help, while Saturday’s behaviour hinted at meltdown.
To an unreconstructed narcissist like the Special One, the praise for Conte and Jurgen Klopp will have grated, especially when it is being claimed their modi operandi make him look “old school”. Just as galling will be that Arsene Wenger, the “specialist in failure”, might be on the cusp of rare success.
The Portuguese’s squandering of £150m suggests he may have lost his touch in the transfer market as well as in the dressing room. Nor does it help that Kevin de Bruyne, Andre Schuurle and Juan Mata are exhibits A, B and C in attacking midfielders whom he let go, the first two for a song.
The looming punishments – particularly if he’s banned from the stadium – may give him time to sort out his suitcase but the United line-up would seem a more pressing problem. He has not had the best of luck but sympathy is hard to find as he doesn’t help himself.
United won’t sack him as it just might cause a dip on Wall Street but the press won’t let go as he remains such an irresistible story: in a cruel world, nothing sells better than a braggart falling on his own petard.
After Real Madrid and his second coming at Chelsea, we knew his batteries had a short shelf-life and were prone to explosion: now he must show that he won’t just be remembered as the Samsung Note 7 of football managers. BURNLEY goalkeeper Tom Heaton, 30, could be in line to start England’s next two games – against Scotland and Spain.
MIDDLESBROUGH ENGLAND striker Harry Kane, 23, could return from injury in time to play for Tottenham against north London rivals Arsenal on Sunday.
BARCELONA SWEDISH striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 35, will soon end his goal drought, according to Manchester United teammate Ander Herrera.
SUNDERLAND’S MANCHESTER CITY manager Pep Guardiola insists back-up goalkeeper Willy Caballero, 35, is ready to take on Barcelona in the Champions League, with first-choice Claudio Bravo, 33, suspended.
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho argues with the fourth official in the English Premier League match against Burnley on Saturday. –
midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, 27, trained alone, a day after being left out of Manchester United’s squad to play Burnley.
defender Ben Gibson, 23, is another player who could be in line for an England callup.
are interested in 16year-old Manchester United attacking midfielder Angel Gomes.
on-loan Manchester United winger Adnan Januzaj, 21, says the Black Cats gave up too easily in their 4-1 defeat by Arsenal.
Chelsea’s head coach Antonio Conte embraces Diego Costa (L) after the English Premier League match against Southampton at St Mary’s Stadium yesterday. –