Monday 23 October 2017

Chelsea are better than Mourinho is prepared to admit

Jose Mourinho's Chelsea have strengthened significantly in the transfer window, adding strikers Diego Costa and Didier Drogba, and former Arsenal and Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas. Photo credit: Steve Bardens/Getty Images
Jose Mourinho's Chelsea have strengthened significantly in the transfer window, adding strikers Diego Costa and Didier Drogba, and former Arsenal and Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas. Photo credit: Steve Bardens/Getty Images

Dion Fanning

Every man has his limits. On Friday, Jose Mourinho spent some time explaining why Chelsea were title contenders - although he may feel their chances are even stronger than that. He went on to outline the qualities of his new signings, and he hailed the spirit and life-affirming qualities of Diego Costa, but there was a question he didn't want to answer.

Mourinho was asked if he ever worried that, given the sanctions imposed against Russia by the West, the club as he knows it could disappear "if Mr Abramovich was frozen out in all this".

There are many reasons for believing that Abramovich has little to fear from whatever action the West takes against Putin's Russia, despite the occasional call that he should be among those facing action.

When Abramovich bought Chelsea 11 years ago, some suggested he would be protected if Putin turned on him. He was the owner of a famous English club, and that would bestow on him a little distinction if he was ever to fall from grace with Moscow.

The questions are a little different today for Abramovich, 11 years after he spent £130million on players in one summer, and they are different for Chelsea, 10 years after Mourinho's first game in the Premier League, a one-paced victory against Manchester United.

Abramovich's time at Chelsea has not turned him into a national treasure, but maybe it is his wealth that protects him, even if money is at the root of the ambivalence many feel about the Premier League in general and his club in particular.

Russia's latest act of aggression has hardened the resolve about sanctions, but hasn't perhaps hardened it to the extent that Britain would drive the oligarchs and their money out of London.

"[David] Cameron appealed to European governments to freeze accounts of oligarchs close to Putin," Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told the Financial Times last month. "He can do it himself, with Roman Abramovich."

In March, another opponent of Putin's, Alexei Navalny, wrote a New York Times article while under house arrest in Moscow in which he called for action. "Western nations could deliver a blow to the luxurious lifestyles enjoyed by the Kremlin's cronies who shuttle between Russia and the West. This means freezing the oligarchs' financial assets and seizing their property." Navalny went on to name Abramovich as one of those in Putin's inner circle.

Mourinho was not going to get into this on a Friday afternoon in Surrey when he wanted to assert Chelsea's title capabilities, talk up a few players and maybe deal with some injury news. He did not want to get into the morality of sanctions or Abramovich's connections to Putin's Russia. "I'm not going in that direction," he said, and, as is the way of these things, he did not have to.

Abramovich's Chelsea has changed a lot in the 11 years since he moved quickly to buy the club, freeing it from the debt of the days of the Ken Bates era. "If a man walks into a club with a billion pounds, it tends to lift the spirits, that's pretty obvious," one former senior Chelsea figure said last week of the days when Abramovich took over.

A year later, he had Mourinho working for him, and the image of the club - as well as their ability to win trophies - changed.

When Abramovich arrived, the then chief executive, Trevor Birch, had suggested the club pursue a strategy where they would be everyone's second team. Birch told the Evening Standard last year that he had advised cutting the price of season tickets and making every fan wish they had an owner like Abramovich.

"There are certain ways you need to act to gain that kind of affection from people," Birch said. "I was voted down. They said, 'We're going to run it as a business, break even and be the biggest club'."

If Mourinho was a different man, perhaps they would have achieved that. If Mourinho was a different man, he might have stayed for 10 years and shaped a dynasty. Chelsea and Abramovich didn't suffer too much without him, winning trophies nearly every year, but there has been only one league title in that time, and whatever aspirations Abramovich has for his club, whatever dreams he has about a team that plays like Guardiola's Barcelona, he first wants them to win.

"In the last couple of years, Chelsea became a good team at the knockout level, European competitions and so on," Mourinho said on Friday. "In terms of a competitive marathon - be strong every week, be strong every game, fight in every conditions, play in every conditions, at home, away, raining, cold, hot, sun - I found a team that lost the ingredients you need to be champions."

That was the club he returned to last summer. Now he says he has found the ingredients. Mourinho is happy with the signings the club made, even if they now operate in a world of Financial Fair Play, and even if it is also a world where PSG will pay £50million for David Luiz.

The arrival of Diego Costa (left), Cesc Fabregas and Didier Drogba has increased the personality in the team, but also the quality. "They are players with experience, they are players with a certain kind of character, but again what do I prefer in Fabregas, his character or his quality as a player?" Mourinho asked. "His quality as a player. What do I prefer in Diego, his quality, his ambition? I prefer his quality as a player. He doesn't lose balls. He receives the ball with the back to the opponents. Holds the ball."

These are players who will give Chelsea more options. Mourinho began his media commitments on Friday by delivering a soundbite that Chelsea were title contenders. By the time he had talked to the daily journalists and moved on to the Sunday papers, it was easy to sense that he thinks they will be more than just contenders.

Chelsea have a squad that Mourinho believes can cope with most events in football. "People think a lot of football is about tactics, 4-4-2, 4-5-1, blah, blah, blah," he said. "A very simple way to analyse football is to say that everything depends on space and time. In some matches, when you don't have space and time to play, you need more quality."

In Costa, he has found a special player. They share the same agent, Jorge Mendes, and Mourinho believes Costa has many qualities.

"I have met so many wonderful characters in football, but it is difficult to find one better than Diego," he said. In the group, in the club, so nice, so funny. In this moment, he probably knows 10 words in English, but he speaks with everybody. I don't know in which language, I don't know how, but he understands everybody, everybody understands him, they are laughing all the time. He is an amazing, positive guy in the group. After that, he goes to the pitch and he wants to win matches."

Mourinho got sentimental when he talked about Costa, a player whose journey from Lagarto, a town Mourinho described as being "behind the sunset - you want to get there and it's difficult to get there", was a long one. Mourinho admitted he "never looked" at Costa while the player was in Portugal but feels Costa has benefited from the years on loan as understudy to Sergio Aguero and Radamel Falcao.

"He was always behind very important players, but at the same time he was developing himself," he said. "When he got the chance to go back to Atlético, he was even better than the other previous ones."

Mourinho pined for a striker with Costa's qualities last season, and if he had had one, Chelsea would probably have won the league. Now that he has that striker, he talked endlessly about his qualities. "He's still the guy who came from a very small village behind the sunset," he said. "He's still that naive, simple, humble guy. At the same time, he's such a communicator, he's such a group guy, he's such a happy man. He doesn't speak more than 10 words in English, but he speaks with everybody. He can have a conversation and interact with somebody, and he doesn't understand one single word the person is saying. But just because of gesture and body language and happiness and so on, everybody likes the guy so much."

Mourinho says he asks Costa all the time, "Do you need me to explain you something in Portuguese?" But he always gets the same answer - 'I understand everything. I understand everything'.

With these players, Mourinho is now ready to challenge as he was not ready last season. Chelsea play Burnley tomorrow, a club rooted in a different world, but a club that might believe that world is a better one.

Abramovich changed everything when he arrived in English football, and he changed Chelsea most of all. Mourinho, on the other hand, insists he is still the same, that he still has the same desire, but he could hardly announce that he no longer wants to win.

He wants the same things he wanted 10 years ago, and he believes he has a team that can make him as happy as the side of 2004/05 did.

Abramovich remains the same too. He is enigmatic and opaque, a man of such privacy that even the identity of his enemies is a mystery.

Mourinho was never one of those, but the pair fell out and they could do so again. Mourinho can protect himself - if he wants protection - by claiming another title for Chelsea.

On Friday, he said any one of six clubs could win the title this season. It's a line he already seems fond of. "If somebody is better than us, it is because they were fantastic," he said. The thing is, I don't think he believes there is a side better than Chelsea, but he is sticking to that line for now. Just about: "It is a pity we have so many title contenders, if not I would say we are going to be champions."

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