Saturday 21 April 2018

Mourinho demands more from his misfiring stars as Blues lurch towards crossroads

Chelsea 1-2 Crystal Palace

Chelsea's Gary Cahill and Crystal Palace's Connor Wickham battle for the ball
Chelsea's Gary Cahill and Crystal Palace's Connor Wickham battle for the ball
Crystal Palace's Connor Wickham holds off Gary Cahill and
Crystal Palace manager Alan Pardew gestures on the touchline
Crystal Palace's Joel Ward celebrates scoring his side's second goal of the game

Gerry Cox

Crisis at Chelsea or not, Jose Mourinho is approaching a crossroads for the first time since the manager returned two summers ago to Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea's defeat by Crystal Palace on Saturday was neither undeserved nor surprising for those who have seen the Eagles soar since Alan Pardew took over, with 10 victories in 12 away games since his appointment in January.

Palace are now in the top three after their third win of the season, secured by goals from Bakary Sako and Joel Ward either side of Radamel Falcao's headed strike. Palace took three months not three weeks last season to reach nine points and spent the first half of the season in the relegation zone.

Chelsea, on the other hand, made a flying start to their title-winning season, with four successive victories, 16 wins in their first 21 games and no defeat until December.

Now Chelsea are in the bottom half of the table, have already lost twice and their total of 10 goals conceded in the first four games is their worst record since 1971.

Too many of Mourinho's big players are underperforming, as he acknowledged after this defeat, only his second at home in 100 Premier League games.

Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic were outfought and out-thought by Yohan Cabaye and Jason Puncheon in the heart of midfield; Eden Hazard and Willian were anonymous by comparison with their counterparts Sako and substitute Yannick Bolasie.

Damien Delaney, who was signed for free three years ago, as was Sako this summer, led Palace's defence superbly, while Chelsea's defence, bereft of the suspended John Terry, looked all at sea.

Mourinho has failed to secure the two central defenders he wanted to sign, Everton's John Stones and Aymen Abdennour, who has joined Valencia from Monaco.

Chelsea's manager must now decide whether to find alternatives before the transfer deadline tomorrow, stick with the old guard, or bring in new blood to replace his established but misfiring stars.

He risked upsetting the club's hierarchy with his thinly veiled criticism that they failed to deliver all the targets he proposed to them four months ago.

When asked if he would make more signings, the manager said: "I hope not. I gave the club my report on the season's projections on April 21. I don't want to go now in August and say: 'I want this and that.' We have to do better, me and the players."

Mourinho also made it clear that he would not simply wait for his star names to rediscover the form of last season.

"You have players who have fantastic seasons and fantastic moments and the next season do not have the same. If you ask me will I accept this, sit in a nice chair and wait calmly for the performance level to be back, the answer is no. I have to work, react, analyse and if I feel the players are not in conditions to react and give more, I have to make changes. I have never had a problem with that."

The Portuguese did not mention Hazard by name but said: "If you are the best in the league, it should be your responsibility to have a similar season to the previous one.

"It is difficult to have a consistent team performance when some of the players are not performing. When you have six or seven performing and three or four who are not an acceptable level."

The Chelsea manager exonerated Kurt Zouma, who filled in for Terry, and fellow youngsters Kenedy and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, whose introduction as substitutes added an urgency and directness that the team had been lacking. Mourinho said: "I have beautiful young eggs in Kenedy, Ruben, Zouma and they did well."

More than anything, Mourinho is conscious that complacency can set in after winning the title, as happened at Manchester City in 2012 and 2014. The prospect appals him. "If this is real, it is very sad. Because I feel the opposite. When I win, I want to win again, I want to win more."

Palace have that hunger which Mourinho wants to see. Pardew's starting eleven cost around £40 million, less than a fifth of the £208 million in fees Chelsea paid for their team, with Mourinho's bench costing another £60million.

Most of the Palace squad have cut their teeth in the lower divisions and are making the most of their time in the spotlight, none more so than Delaney, who came out on top of his physical scrap with Diego Costa.

The Irishman said:"Yes, it's been a while since I had that, a good old-fashioned League Two battle.

"I spent a lot of my career in the lower leagues, raised on battling with big, bruising centre forwards - obviously Costa's a good player too - so I enjoyed that.

"We've already got nine points and it took us until November to get that total in the past couple of seasons.

"To get it from four games is exceptional and we have to keep that momentum."

Chelsea, on the other hand, are still seeking their own momentum.

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