Friday 19 January 2018

James Lawton: Special One now bigger than Chelsea

Jose Mourinho. Picture: PA
Jose Mourinho. Picture: PA
James Lawton

James Lawton

For some time now the task of Chelsea's interim manager Rafa Benitez could hardly have been more forlorn. This, though, was before the presence of his bitter rival Jose Mourinho became just a little more tangible.

We can only imagine Benitez's angst as he fights to maintain the club's Champions League qualifying position and on Monday seeks what, in normal circumstances, would be the considerable coup of an FA Cup knock-out of Manchester United.

But nothing is normal at Chelsea and hardly less in the astonishing career trajectory of the Special One.

This week Benitez read that Mourinho and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich have finally healed the wounds that came when the hero of the Stamford Bridge crowd was manoeuvred through the back door in 2007.

There was, too, extra speculation to define the hugely different circumstances of Mourinho and Benitez. While the Spaniard is obliged to continue to ride the hostility of the crowd and rescue a measure of self-respect from his personal ordeal, there is another report that if Mourinho does not return to Chelsea he has an open invitation to move to Paris Saint-Germain and the riches of their Qatar ownership.

It certainly seems that, with Pep Guardiola removed from the market at Bayern Munich, Mourinho has inherited the world of club football.

He said as much this week while making a flying visit to Chelsea for the friendly between Brazil and Russia.

"People that know me know me well enough to know that in this moment I'm thinking about my job at Real Madrid," he declared.

"But again I cannot deny that, despite the disgraceful weather, I love it here and I have big emotional attachments with Chelsea. One day, I think, naturally I have to be back in English football, at Chelsea or another club.

"Chelsea is in my heart, as is Inter, for example. So, one day I have to be back, but again it must be normal."

Normal? The word bounces like a broken arrow against the reality of both Chelsea and Mourinho's career, but this is the smallest reason to believe that when his mission with Real is over this spring a reunion with his old club does not make the most compelling sense.

The fact is Mourinho might just present himself with an aura to buttress himself against any of the game's hazards, including the whims of the oligarch. Certainly the quarter-final draw of the Champions League, which pits Real against Galatasaray, has done nothing to diminish the chances of Mourinho claiming the unique distinction of winning the competition at three different clubs.

If Mourinho was still vulnerable at Chelsea after delivering two Premier League titles, to add to his Champions League title with Porto, he would return as arguably the only man with the gravitas, and sheer self-belief, to live comfortably with the regime that has shown such scant respect for the status of a manager, even one like Roberto di Matteo cut down six months after winning the greatest prize in club football.

This would still be substantially true if Mourinho failed to deliver that third European title. He would still be able to laugh at the possibility that Chelsea might still consider themselves bigger than the man they had been forced to re-embrace after a season of near relentless embarrassment.

The reality is that Mourinho some time ago passed the point where had to entertain the idea of doffing his cap to any football potentate.

He is adored on the terraces of Stamford Bridge and his return would be something like football's version of Palm Sunday.

If, for historical reasons, he hasn't commanded such emotional support on the terraces of the Bernabeu, it is still true that he has shown more than enough nerve to maintain his position through some critical days.

He has been variously assailed in Madrid for inciting player insurrection, for showing too little respect for the football traditions of Real, but the enduring possibility that he might add the Champions League title to last season's La Liga triumph has been brilliantly augmented by his recent victories over Barcelona.

The domestic title might have been conceded some time ago, but Mourinho has reannounced his ability to play for the highest stakes and, crucially, have his players ready for such moments.

These are personal qualities, built towards in his extraordinary work at Porto, Chelsea and Internazionale, when the principal victim was the vaunted Barca, which now make him almost custom-built for the peculiar challenge represented by Chelsea.

When he left Inter, players wept. Imagine the impact of such a restored relationship between the manager and a core of experienced players at Chelsea, where this season there has been division between the hierarchy and one the club's two most popular players, Frank Lampard.

Lampard and other one, John Terry, were, of course, Mourinho's most favoured lieutenants.

They are now a little old for such roles, of course, but Mourinho's ability to make new alliances, overnight, have become legendary and if we need any reminders, there was the desperate dislocation felt by Wesley Sneijder – for a while one of the Europe's most influential players – when his mentor and cheerleader left Milan.

The idea that if Mourinho does return he will be chaffed for any shortfall in Chelsea's playing style can also be discounted.

On this matter which we have been frequently told is the heart of the oligarch's football ambitions, it is reasonable to anticipate a considerable honeymoon period. The imperative is to make Chelsea properly functional as a major force in the game.

Unerringly, Mourinho has built on that first reputation for ruthless ambition.

One theory is that if the reunion does not happen, Abramovich will turn again to the certainties of the Dutch veteran Guus Hiddink.

After the chaos of the current season, it would seem to be the safest of options.

However, it is Mourinho who would best trigger the Chelsea blood. It would be a homecoming to make Benitez shake his head, if not weep.

Irish Independent

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