Friday 15 December 2017

Oscar looks ready to be Mourinho's leading man

CHELSEA 1 STOKE CITY 0

Oscar celebrates after scoring for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge
Oscar celebrates after scoring for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge
Oscar celebrates after scoring for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge
Chelsea's English defender Gary Cahill clears the ball in front of Stoke City's English striker Peter Crouch
Chelsea's Serbian midfielder Nemanja Matic vies in the air with Stoke City's English striker Peter Crouch
Asmir Begovic of Stoke City fails to stop Oscar of Chelsea score the opening goal

Paul Hayward

Brazilian playmaker can ensure sentimental Chelsea fans quickly forget departed Mata

For Jose Mourinho to justify selling Juan Mata to Manchester United he needs Oscar to pick up Oscars. Mourinho's promise to build his side around his 22-year-old Brazilian was vindicated by a sweet free-kick and a performance of constant locomotion from the team's leading man as Chelsea earned a fifth-round tie at Manchester City.

No sooner had Chelsea signed Mohamed Salah from FC Basle and dispatched Stoke City than Mourinho was heaping psychological pressure on City, who, he keeps insisting, have a duty to win everything by virtue of their vast talent pool and spending.

Even without this predictable jousting, a fifth-round tie worthy of a final will again test Mourinho's decision to offload Chelsea's player of the year for the last two seasons to a major rival.

Oscar dos Santos Emboaba Junior looks ready for the task. His winning free-kick on Mourinho's 51st birthday curled right to left and found the top corner of Asmir Begovic's net as if obeying a computer's calculation.

It cost £19.35m to buy Oscar from Internacional – some £18m less than the fee received for Mata.

While United's new acquisition darted through gaps and stroked unplayable passes onto the toes of team-mates, Oscar is more of a glider who turns up all over the pitch (including defensive positions).

Mourinho's gamble met the approval of Chelsea's fans, however sad they were to see Mata go. They trust his judgment. They see Chelsea settling into a mighty rhythm. They watch Oscar, Eden Hazard and Willian supply the creativity. They are optimistic about Nemanja Matic's return, in a deep midfield role. Salah is on his way.

Mourinho has sold them the idea that Mata was ultimately surplus to requirements and no one is inclined to argue.

"Oscar is going to be my No 10 and I'm going to build my team around that decision," Mourinho said before the Mata sale, and in this 1-0 victory Oscar set out to repay him.

Stoke's tackling was robust in the early stages but Oscar's goal stemmed from a non-foul on the edge of the penalty box. When Erik Pieters poked his toe through the legs of Samuel Eto'o he unbalanced him without committing much of an offence.

SEIZED

But Oscar, who also hit a post with a right-foot drive, seized his chance, clipping the ball in a perfect arc beyond Begovic. Stoke's attacking play was glacial. While Peter Crouch grappled with David Luiz, the ball was continually lost on the edge of the Chelsea penalty area.

Mourinho's men accepted the invitation to practise counter-attacking. Without Ryan Shawcross at the back Stoke might have conceded several more. His reward was to take one in the unmentionables late on from a wicked Willian drive.

Frank Lampard, hunting his 250th goal in club football, also fired over with his left foot. Eto'o and Andre Schurrle should both have scored. Yet Mourinho could feel sure throughout that Stoke were stuck in his Stamford Bridge vice.

Against Stoke's 4-1-4-1, Mourinho started with John Terry, Cesar Azpilicueta, Petr Cech and Ramires on the bench. There was a rare start for Ashley Cole at left-back and Mark Schwarzer in goal.

Matic, repatriated from Benfica, was assured and strong alongside Lampard in front of the back four. This signing – or re-signing – brings more ballast to one of Mourinho's favourite areas.

"Very comfortable, very comfortable. Big stability, also with Lampard on his side. Very comfortable on the pitch," Mourinho said of Matic.

"I have no statistics, but he stole a lot of balls and his pass was always quality, and big stability and using his physical presence to make it difficult for Peter (Crouch). Matic is comfortable anywhere. He's good at defensive actions against this kind of team, but he's very comfortable with the ball.

"His left foot is soft. The ball comes always sweetly, and the decision is always an easy, simple decision. The team flies when somebody makes it so simple. It was good."

He was less impressed with Stoke's meaty tackling of Hazard, though it was never malicious.

"I don't want to cry. It's not my nature, or Chelsea's nature," Mourinho claimed. "Hazard is small but is a very strong boy and resists a lot. He doesn't like to dive or be on the floor. Opponents are coming very strong on him.

"Today, Mr (Chris) Foy, the referee, was just a little bit late to give the yellow card to (Geoff) Cameron, but he gave the card (for a foul on Hazard). After that, the situation was different."

Now fully in his stride as the king of Stamford Bridge, Mourinho portrayed the Mata sale as a collegiate decision, free from the kind of owner-manager rancour that ended his first spell in west London.

"Nobody in this club sold Mata for football reasons. For those reasons, we'd keep him. We sold because, economically, it was very good.

"The player was not happy with this situation, and that we have to respect.

"I'm sorry I didn't make him happy. I build a team around Oscar in that position and, on the sides, the other people are doing very well. Juan is not comfortable on the sides."

A quiet family birthday dinner capped off the day. Mata out, Matic and Salah in. Seven wins in a row in all competitions.

But two trips to Manchester City loom, within a fortnight in February, in league and cup. Do believe the hype. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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