Practice makes perfect for Willian as he sets sight on legendary status
On a bleak, slate-grey day at Chelsea's training ground only the arrival of Willian lightens the mood. It is entirely in keeping with the club's season.
The Brazilian has been the shining light in an otherwise wretched campaign, providing sustained excellence amid much mediocrity.
His five goals and all-round displays have cemented his status as a talisman for a side who sometimes seem to be clinging on by their fingernails.
There are, Willian admits, "mixed emotions" that the finest form of his own career has coincided with Chelsea's worst run since Roman Abramovich bought the club 12 years ago. But there is also pride that he is becoming the player he always thought he could be, with his size 7.5 feet making small steps towards filling the sizeable shoes of either Frank Lampard or Didier Drogba in terms of goals and leadership.
His latest rescue act was a spectacular late free-kick to seal a decisive victory against Dynamo Kiev on Wednesday night. There can be no question he is the finest exponent of the dead-ball art in the Premier League.
So which Brazilian does the 27-year-old base his technique on? Roberto Carlos, Zico or Ronaldinho perhaps? "I would look to David Beckham and Andrea Pirlo when it came to studying technique," Willian says.
"Since the very early days when I started playing in Brazil and first became a professional I always used to take free-kicks. When I played for Shakhtar Donetsk, I used to take free-kicks and scored a few goals, then when I came here with Chelsea I took a few free-kicks but was not able to score.
"But I kept practising. Every day after training I would stay to do some shooting. I would take five or six and that helped me to get more confidence for when they came in the games. I have been lucky now to have scored a few. Hopefully it will carry on that way."
And Willian sees no reason his run of form should end. In fact, he believes this could be just the start.
"I am at a stage in my career where you can reach the peak," he says. "The best moment for players should be between 27 and 30. Hopefully I will be able to maintain this level for the rest of the season.
"I know the more goals I score the more pressure will be towards me. But I am quite confident I am ready to deal with this pressure. Jose Mourinho is a manager that definitely gives me a lot of confidence, and I am very happy to be working with him."
Mourinho must be grateful he has Willian to call on, too.
Two years ago, when Chelsea spent £30million to bring Willian from Shakhtar, there was speculation it was only to keep him out of Tottenham's clutches. Since then a different player - forceful, dominant - has emerged, and Willian himself believes that is due to the Portuguese.
"I have been learning a lot from the manager," he adds. "Next year I am going to be three seasons at Chelsea and I have been evolving a lot. I have been learning from Mourinho on a daily basis.
"He is the type of manager that knows when he needs to back up the players, he knows when it is the time to relax and joke around."
There will be no joking today. Mourinho will serve a one-match stadium ban at Stoke and will have no contact with his players after leaving the team bus at the Britannia Stadium. Willian is adamant that will not be an issue.
"It won't be a problem," he says. "Because we are with him on a daily basis. He tells us what he expects from us. If he is there he can guide us and give us some help but we know what we have to do on the pitch."
For Willian, that means changing nothing at all, and there is genuine belief in his voice when he says he hopes one day to be held in similar affection by Chelsea's fans as Lampard and Drogba.
"They both have massive history within this club," he says with a smile. "It is a bit too early to start speaking if I could fit in that role. But my hope is to carry on working the same way I am doing right now, and maybe in the future I would like to be recognised by the Chelsea supporters as one of those leaders." (© Daily Telegraph, London)