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Primal struggle drives dugout's greatest entertainer

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Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho

Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho

REUTERS

Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho

As ever with José Mourinho, he was fighting his battles pitchside with the usual appetite for confrontation and that familiar lust for victory.

The referee, the fourth official, the West Ham players and Sam Allardyce all came into the firing line at one stage or another on Wednesday night. His escalating desperation morphed into impotent frustration at the final whistle. Chelsea had been held 0-0 at home despite a mountain of possession and a ludicrous number of chances.

It was an utterly incongruous scoreline. But he had to accept it, even as he fought against accepting it. Thus began another battle, this time a more private affair, between the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. This primal struggle ended in stalemate.

West Ham had employed the sealed-tin-can formation. There wasn't even a ring-pull on the lid to offer some chance of an opening. They stacked their own half of the field. They frequently had eight or nine players in their own penalty area. They queued up to block shots and track back and tackle anything in blue. It was horrible, they were tremendous.

Mourinho afterwards couldn't decide whether to admire them or condemn them, so he did both. "They defend with their heart," he told the BBC, "and I respect that, and I praise that."

But in his press conference he couldn't keep the resentment at bay. "It's very difficult to play a football match where only one team wants to play, very difficult. A match is about two teams playing. This match was only one team playing." He added that West Ham had played "football from the 19th century."

Informed of these comments, Allardyce retorted with one of the pithiest quotes of the season: "I don't give a shite, to be honest." Oscar Wilde would surely have approved.

Big Sam wasn't one bit put out by Mourinho's condescending attitude. This provincial Englishman has earned his spurs the hard way. He's at it a long time and he wasn't going to take any lip, not even from a managerial galactico.

"He can't take it, can he? He can't take it," said Allardyce, "because we've out-tactic-ed him, outwitted him. He just can't cope. I love to see José jumping up and down in his technical area. It's great to see."

But Mourinho had assured everyone when he returned to England last summer that he was a more mature and rounded individual these days. The manager who had fetched up at Stamford Bridge ten years earlier was a nasty provocateur with a king-sized ego and a sense of entitlement that was borderline deranged.

On Wednesday night, despite his festering grievances, he showed a measure of self-awareness that was almost alarming. He understood the priorities of a side in the relegation zone. "I'm nobody to criticise a team that came for one point and (it) doesn't matter how, what matters is that they took the point. I don't want to criticise, my team did everything possible."

And he repeated himself – "I'm nobody to criticise" – perhaps knowing full well that he was wide open to the charge of blatant hypocrisy in this regard. Indeed he might well be open to it still, and as early as tomorrow night when he takes his team to the Etihad Stadium for a pivotal collision with Manchester City.

Chelsea won't do a West Ham on it but they will be happy to leave with a point against a side that is tearing teams apart at home. City moved top of the league on Wednesday night with a 5-1 thrashing of Spurs on the road and are threatening to swamp all comers now in a deluge of goals. They are playing football from the very cutting edge of the 21st century.

It is a match made for Mourinho's tactical ingenuity – and he will need every ounce of it if his team is to emerge unscathed. He was happy to come away from Old Trafford and the Emirates with scoreless draws earlier this season and he'll be planning a similar strategy for the Etihad.

And if someone calls him a hypocrite, José, to paraphrase, won't give a shite either.

Ah, you've got to love him, in a way. Mourinho brings out the angel and the devil in a lot of other people too. After team training on Friday he was back to the

usual mischief in his latest press conference, trying to plant a few thoughts with tomorrow night's match officials. City were getting all the breaks this season from referees, he said.

Inevitably he had his homework done too: Liverpool, Newcastle and Spurs had all been on the receiving end of these bad decisions. But this was "just pure coincidence", of course.

Then he flashed a shard of the humour that has always been his saving grace. Spurs manager Tim Sherwood's claim, that City were the best team on the planet, was put to him. "Maybe, for the Tottenham manager," replied José, "the planet is England."

A brilliant line, with plenty of layers to it, that said a lot about English managers like Sherwood, and indeed Allardyce.

It is a unique package of gifts in one manager: the brilliance at his job, the competitive malice, the charisma and comedy and intellectual flair. But Big Sam wasn't bowled over by it on Wednesday night. And we suspect that Manuel Pellegrini, City's morose coach, won't be tomorrow night either.

thecouch@independent.ie

Irish Independent