Ghost of Mourinho is happy haunting for spirited Chelsea
The Blues’ current success has its foundations in the work of their last four managers
It is uncomfortable to listen to a man whose happiness is all a complete misunderstanding. On a May afternoon at Old Trafford in 2004 Claudio Ranieri was convinced he would be staying on as the Chelsea manager. No one else shared the delusion, but the Italian’s confidence had its apparent foundation. Following a 1-1 draw with Manchester United, Chelsea had just clinched second place, their highest finish since they were champions in 1955.
In nearly half a century there had been four plunges into the old Second Division and a narrow escape from relegation to the Third Division. You could see why Ranieri had a mistaken belief in his job security. His efforts were significant if unspectacular, so the rate at which Chelsea’s improvement then accelerated has been astonishing.
When the team won 2-0 at St James’ Park on Monday to ensure that their shadow still falls over United in the Premier League it was the act of a squad that expects to be in contention for the great prizes. This sense of their own position in football society is as important as the ability of the players. As any major club will confirm, confidence wins matches by deterring the opposition.
The very name Manchester United looms over their matches. Elsewhere in the top four that Kevin Keegan fears is a permanent elite, Arsenal have a hallowed eminence and from time to time Liverpool fans may just remember to throw in a reference to their five European Cups. Chelsea are the odd ones out. Arsène Wenger, with three titles, has won the league as often as the Stamford Bridge club ever has. Nine of United’s 16 were landed by Sir Alex Ferguson.
If Chelsea are utterly free of doubt over their status that is liable to be taken as the legacy of a character who was always entirely clear about his own special qualities. Despite impressions to the contrary, though, life at the club is more than an echo of Jose Mourinho’s resonant presence.
A project was under way before the advent of the Portuguese or, for that matter, the acquisition of Chelsea by Roman Abramovich in 2003. There was a conscious endeavour to accentuate a cosmopolitan glamour in the latter part of Ken Bates’ time. Ruud Gullitt and Gianluca Vialli would both play for and manage the club while the crowd also doted on Gianfranco Zola. There were trophies as well, such as the 1998 Cup Winners’ Cup and the 2000 FA Cup.
That period must have had its impact. How, for instance, could a 17-year-old John Terry not have had his horizons expanded when a lionised centre-half like Marcel Desailly signed for Chelsea in 1998? After the 2001 transfer from West Ham, it could only have been educational, too, for Frank Lampard to be in the company of the World Cup-winner Emmanuel Petit, fading as he was, and Zola.
Many clubs have spent heavily, if not quite to Abramovich’s extent, and wound up with a ragbag of a squad. Chelsea have evaded that trap and there is a well-integrated quality to the team that reflects well on the management of Mourinho and now Avram Grant. No one doubted these footballers had come to fight for one another at St James’ Park as, in the second half, they carried the battle to Newcastle.
The blend in the team is interesting. Some, such as Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Michael Ballack, were stars before they got to Chelsea. Others, like Michael Essien and Petr Cech, had not fully matured when Mourinho bought them. A few, including Mikel John Obi and Salomon Kalou, are just beginning to develop. The mixture, too, has those such as Terry, Lampard, Wayne Bridge, Ashley Cole and Joe Cole who are steeped in English football.
As the beguiling second goal showed at Newcastle, Chelsea can play with slick style. In the same game there was proof, as if any were still required, of the tenacity. What fails to be appreciated is the rarity of this confluence of toughness and cosmopolitan talent. The reliability, too, is taken for granted. Winning the Carling Cup and downing Ferguson’s team in the FA Cup final while also reaching the last four of the Champions League was seen preposterously as underachievement by Mourinho in 2007.
United, with the title still to be decided and the Moscow final to come, will be part the minority with an acute awareness of just how remarkable Chelsea truly are.