Wednesday 21 March 2018

James Lawton: Mourinho and Wenger are fighting for something more than bragging rights

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho (right) had a heated exchange with Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger last season.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho (right) had a heated exchange with Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger last season.
James Lawton

James Lawton

Money can’t buy you love, or happiness or, judging by the Champions League action, a sufficient degree of passion.

That certainly seemed to be the unavoidable message of a week which threw up a whole new weight of questioning on the right of the Premier League to claim four places in the elite competition - and even whisper its claim to be the world’s most charismatic football competition.

It means that when Chelsea, the sole survivors of the mayhem that left Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United with the stunned expressions of ambush victims, come out to play at noon tomorrow they are obliged to do something more than put a little flesh on the bones of their title defence

Against Arsenal, the most inept and emotionally under-charged of all the Premier League casualties, they have not only to show a touch of the authority of champions but, maybe more crucially, dig down for some of that passion which seems to been claimed domestically mainly by Leicester City and West Ham United.

It used to be one of the Premier League’s most compelling selling points across the globe. Perhaps the football didn’t always reach dizzying levels of technical perfection, not like a Barca master-class or an Italian defensive shut-out, but there was always that fight, that explosive capacity to make something happen – something to linger in the mind like a flash of cannon or a swirl of gunsmoke.

Now it seems to dissolve at first contact with large reaches of the European game.

Had Chelsea’s slide towards the abyss not been checked with the visit of the toothless champions of Isreal, Maccabi Tel Aviv, it would have been English football’s equivalent of the Valentine Day’s Massacre.

Wherever you looked, in East Manchester, Eindhoven and Zagreb City, United and Arsenal, were failing, point by point, a critical competitive check list.

In England the worn-out boasting of Premier League officials that they are in charge of the world’s best league had never look so misplaced.

By the sharpest comparison, in Holland and Croatia there was a surge of pride that their ill-considered champion teams had analysed coolly and then overcome hugely more expensive opponents and in Italy there was a genuine scent of what might just be a major renaissance of a once mighty league.

It came with Juventus’s brilliantly conceived – and, yes, passionately executed triumph at City, and the epic goal of Roma’s Alessandro Florenzi that achieved parity with Barcelona, the champions of champions. That was a cocktail to lift the spirits in the stately old squares of Turin and in the glitz of Rome’s Via Veneto.

The toast? It was, surely, to football with a drive and a heart – something indeed to hold up against the pallid efforts of the world’s best heeled football league.

Nowhere, though, were the celebrations more intense than in Zagreb, where Croatia’s perennial champions Dinamo were taking an unprecedented 21st century step towards the peak of the European game. No matter that the victory was helped by the sloppy professionalism of the red-carded Olivier Giroud and a dismaying lack of influence from such superstars as Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez.

Arsene Wenger mostly blamed the referee and said his team was a little unlucky. He would, wouldn’t he, because the idea that he has finally built again a team of quality and competitive steel, keeps breaking down the moment it is exposed to the superior demands of the European game.

Last season the modesty appraised Monaco saw through the Arsenal bluster. This week it was Zagreb, a team who had both a plan and degree of self-belief. It was based on the belief that for all the skills in the Arsenal armoury, there was also a soft centre.

And now for Arsenal we can again also read Manchester City, United and – when the anti is raised – maybe Chelsea.

This week Jose Mourinho was insisting, albeit with his tongue nestling against his cheek, that he remains a ‘fantastic’ manager despite Chelsea’s horrible start. His record, of course, provides the most formidable support for such a claim but even Special Ones have to observe one of the oldest truths of football and life. It is that sometimes in even the most impressive career there is a moment when a manager, just like his team, can go one of two ways.

He can stand and fight after the closest of self-examination, see the need to exert old values and operating principles. Or he can buy the illusion that nothing is wrong that cannot be dismissed by a few airy platitudes and a complacent look into the mirror.

The truth of course is that both the managers of Chelsea and Arsenal are fighting for something more than jealously guarded bragging rights.

Mourinho has to prove that he has still the knack of making players go to their limits; that he can still carry them into battle as he did the young John Terry and Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. Heaven knows, it was an enviable talent, one he also displayed brilliantly at Porto and at Internazionale, but at Real Madrid it congealed into something much less inspiring. It was a self-preoccupation which first alienated, then disenfranchised the players.

Is the same thing happening at Stamford Bridge the second time around?

The taut expressions of some key players, notably the now brooding, dressing room giant Terry suggest it might be, and if so it is a scenario which we know is unlikely to be tolerated for too long by owner Roman Abramovich. He is, after all, a man for whom the winning of mere baubles, including the Champions League title of the fallen Roberto de Matteo, will never be seen as a guarantee of survival.

Wenger is in a indifferent and some would say unsinkable boat. Revered at the Emirates Stadium for his ability to maintain a competitive team, and constant European involvement, under the financial shadow of the great stadium development, he has been able to dodge the bullet implicit in the question concerning when his team will again be true contenders at the highest level of the game.

Such a status once again looked remote in Zagreb this week. Arsenal were a team of considerable talent but also crippling self-indulgence. They did not seem geared for the highest tests of their ability – or their competitive nerve.

Nor did Manchester City or United. It makes the weekend action, especially that at Stamford Bridge, something between an inquest and a roll call. Surely, no-one needs to raise their hand quite as sharply as the teams of Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger.

Online Editors

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport