Losing faith of his players threatens Mourinho's standing
Mourinho's ability to banish his demons comes under scrutiny as another barren season looms
If a week is a long time in politics, two months in football can seem like a whole distressing lifetime. For this we need only consult Jose Mourinho.
At the start of February, you could be forgiven for believing the Special One was once again a lord of his universe. Not only did Chelsea beat Premier League favourites Manchester City on their own ground, they delivered a tactical tour de force. The author of it preened, as well he might.
Mock modesty, never his most appealing quality, tumbled from his shoulders.
Now he looks into the mirror with the haunted expression of a man obliged, once again, to reinvent himself. Maybe it gets a little more difficult when you are past 50 and the most recent illusions have landed on the cutting-room floor of the movie in which you have always billed yourself the star. Even so, his rage appears to be simmering dangerously.
For Mourinho, the worst sensation is a failure of momentum and that was his situation when he arrived at Stamford Bridge last summer, bruised by his buffeting in Madrid, ignored by Manchester United and looking back, for the first time, at a season stripped of the highest achievement.
The pressure is re-doubled now, of course, in the wake of this week's shabby surrender to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League and the grievous blows dealt to his title hopes by such non-entities as Aston Villa and Crystal Palace.
The dire possibility – on current form it is surely more a likelihood – is of another barren season after months of gathering promise.
It means that, almost as much as the embattled David Moyes at United and Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, Mourinho is not just peering in that mirror but fighting for his professional life, at least in the elevated status of being a natural-born winner.
For those who admire him despite of the worst of his nature, who still see amid the vaulting ego and the often sneering manner, someone of uniquely driven ambition, the most serious prospect is of a second straight season firing blanks.
At the time of triumph in Manchester, his horizons had been utterly refurbished. Yet it was followed swiftly by City's FA Cup revenge, the weakening title challenge – either side of the 6-0 evisceration of Arsenal – and now extreme peril in Europe after the lame 3-1 loss in Paris.
Tomorrow he is at risk of rare embarrassment at Stamford Bridge when Mark Hughes returns to his old hunting ground with a potentially resolute Stoke City. The spectre is of the enemy within the gates.
Mourinho's biggest problem, in the absence of Samuel Eto'o, is a strike force malfunctioning so badly that his token marksman on Wednesday night was the hard-working but scarcely lethal Andre Schurrle. That, and the sudden dip in his relationship with the dressing-room.
The need to restore it has now become huge, even if his scorn for Fernando Torres is not so hard to understand. If there is anyone at Chelsea more wrapped up in his own pain and hurts, it is only, at a stretch, Mourinho. But then the growing disdain of the manager for virtually the entire dressing-room is surely threatening to return him to the impasse at the Bernabeu that came when relations with the team touched breaking point.
At the peak of his effectiveness Mourinho's rapport with his key players was always the most vital factor. John Terry and Frank Lampard were his English enforcers of the team ethic, Didier Drogba thundered towards hero status. Now there is scarcely the sound of a kind word from the manager's office.
This week he talked of the concession of 'joke' goals. When central defender Gary Cahill, who normally finds extra stature in big games, conceded a certain sloppiness in the Paris performance, Mourinho's eyes blazed with disdain. No, not sloppy, he seethed, but ridiculous.
His dismissal of available strikers in Paris could not have been more profound, saying, "I'm not happy with my strikers' performances, so I have to try things. And with Andre at least I know we have one more player to have the ball. Even without being dangerous, because he is not a striker, he can associate and the team can have control of the ball possession. But football is not just about that. It's about scoring goals, getting behind your opponents, and that is for strikers, real strikers. So I had to try."
Few do disdain better than Mourinho in the face of disappointment but in the past he has always carried his players through periods of doubt. He has always reminded himself that without a degree of mutual belief, the relationship of a manager with his players will always be vulnerable to the latest squall.
At Porto, Chelsea first time round, and Internazionale, the linkage was made of steel. In Milan, some extremely hard-bitten players wept when he left for Spain, and it was clear that Terry and Lampard came into this season confident that such bonding would come again. It is, however, beginning to run dangerously late. After the catastrophe at Palace, Mourinho refused to speak of the most crucial deficiency, then scrawled down the word 'balls'. It was rough psychology indeed and it makes a close examination of Chelsea fortitude inevitable tomorrow.
Also under the fiercest scrutiny is the enduring ability of Mourinho to dismiss his demons. They have been swarming around him these last few days and plainly they have to be brought under control. Can he work the trick, can he rally the troops he has been criticising so vehemently?
As he works to do so, one date beyond next Tuesday's resumed trial against PSG looms above all others. It is April 27 when he goes to Anfield in an attempt to quell the extraordinary surge of his former protégé Brendan Rodgers, the young Liverpool manager for whom even the weathered old pro Steven Gerrard has recently been bending his knee.
Mourinho may find himself observing the style of the ex-student who has become such a significant rival and seeing some of his own past. The worry is that it may already have flown.
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