Thursday 14 December 2017

Mourinho could ruin one of the great title races

This was meant to be a Premier League title race for the history books, not one decided by politics and Jose Mourinho's self-interest.

Jose Mourinho's self-interest may overshadow title race.
Jose Mourinho's self-interest may overshadow title race.


Fixture No 36 in Chelsea’s Premier League season was sent by the gods to let Jose Mourinho take revenge on all his enemies. Except Liverpool, who will be a leap closer to their first English title for 24 years if their visitors on Sunday hoist the white flag.


Mourinho can take them all down in one 90-minute payback: the league, referees, Manchester City, the television companies, even Roman Abramovich for not buying him a fancy striker.

A potentially momentous clash had already been undermined by Chelsea’s extraordinary home defeat to Sunderland and Liverpool’s win at Norwich, but now the ‘Political One’ is threatening to field a shadow side at Anfield and treat the match as a rude interruption to his quest to scrape past Atlético Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals.

Attention-deflecting shields seldom come this big, and Mourinho is laughing away behind this one. First, he can claim that the Premier League’s refusal to shift the fixture to Saturday displays the warped priorities of the English game, even though the Chelsea v Sunderland game was moved to a Saturday to accommodate a Tuesday night date at Atlético.

Second, by declaring straight after the 0-0 draw at the Vicente Calderón that he would consult Abramovich on selection policy for the Liverpool game, he neatly shared any subsequent blame with the owner and made it a club issue rather than another example of his disputatiousness.

Third, Mourinho has steadily displayed the kind of persecution complex he paraded in Spain, where he set out to prove that a mystical underground power network was helping Barcelona at every turn. Back in England, he has veered from praising our fairness and sportsmanship last summer to seeing conspiracies everywhere.

Jose Mourinho believes his side will bounce back against PSG

His feuds with Mike Dean, Mike Riley and Chris Foy on the refereeing front indicate a need to divert the public’s gaze from bad defeats and bolster his file of excuses.

Some think Mourinho is playing possum ahead of the Anfield fixture. They think Chelsea will leap off the floor and do unto Liverpool what they did unto Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, hounding and counter-attacking Manuel Pellegrini’s team with gusto.

That night showed us Mourinho-the-master-strategist. If the mind games theory is wrong, Sunday will show the Mourinho who is willing to pull the sky down on one of the great title races out of self-interest.

There is no bluff involved in him thinking he cannot win the league. But the stalemate at Atlético and Real’s 1-0 victory over Bayern Munich in the other semi-final will have raised his hopes of winning the Champions League with a third club. The loss of Petr Cech and John Terry to injury forces him to think even more intensely about his team’s defensive strategy at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.

Liverpool fans would be quite happy to see Mourinho field 11 Chelsea Pensioners or a side of under-eights. After 11 consecutive league wins for Brendan Rodgers’ men, there is nothing Chelsea can do to diminish the Anfield rebirth.

If Liverpool return to where they last were in 1990 it will not be because Mourinho turned Machiavellian on the run-in. Yet the thrill is gone when a team who could still theoretically win the title pass up that chance in favour of glory in another competition.

Mourinho cannot break the rules by simply selecting a B team. Clubs now avoid the kind of punishments that befell Blackpool and Wolves. The 25-man squad, they argue, ought to allow for rotation and facilitate the fielding of strong teams in any circumstances.

A greater threat than the starting line-up itself is what message it might convey to Mourinho’s players. As we have seen in domestic cup competitions, if you tell them the competition is irrelevant it tends to show on the pitch. A five per cent drop in intensity is sufficient to allow Luis Suárez through on goal.

So if Chelsea trot out beneath the “This is Anfield” sign thinking the game is an exercise in injury-avoidance rather then the vagaries of the fixture list and Mourinho’s politicking will have deprived us of a gloriously tense afternoon on Merseyside.

The other flaw in Mourinho’s case is that Atlético also play on Sunday.

Wednesday night’s battlefield is already level. Chelsea were seeking an advantage, not parity, in inquiring about the possibility of a switch to Saturday. All of which diverts the eye from the squandering of points at Newcastle, Stoke, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and at home to Sunderland last weekend.

Mourinho redirected his forces to Europe when his domestic campaign flamed out. No one can dispute his logic. But the negativity he has brought to Chelsea’s season will find its biggest outlet if he goes in at half-steam against Liverpool. This was meant to be a Premier League title race for the history books, not one decided by politics.

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