He got everything right. The team, the strategy, the tempo, the mood. He knew the stakes, he knew how to win, he knew when to risk, when to gamble, when to hold. It was, quite possibly, the perfect game.
There have been more than a few landmark performances in the career of Jose Mourinho, but a very strong case can be made that this was his finest as a Premier League manager.
The impact on the title race was not immediately obvious. Chelsea started the day in third place and ended it there, too. The same with Manchester City in second. Goal difference separates them now, rather than three points, but goal difference can still win leagues and if the competition ended tomorrow the trophy would go to Arsenal.
No, Mourinho’s impact was greater than a mere jostling for position. He exposed a myth, he challenged the perceived wisdom, he inspected the evidence and threw it contemptuously to the floor. His revelation, the statement he made to the rest of the league, was that Manchester City are not invincible. There should be no procession, no deference, no awestruck observation of their inevitable progress to the finishing tape.
This team can be beaten. This team have weaknesses. That was Mourinho’s message for the masses. Chelsea’s performance was an invitation for others to do the same, to get at City’s defence, to place obstacles in the path of that all-conquering midfield.
What Mourinho proved was that if a coach can cause City as many problems as they are causing him, they are vulnerable. Few coaches have Chelsea’s squad, of course, or Mourinho’s intelligence in deploying it but now there is hope and a map that shows where the treasure is. This was worth more than just three points to Chelsea.
At the end, Mourinho’s emotion overwhelmed him. He punched the air, roared, chest-bumped every staff member and player in the vicinity. Then he shook Manuel Pellegrini’s hand. The pair have met nine times as managers, Mourinho winning seven and drawing one.
Chelsea have claimed all six points from City this season and this was an improvement on the win at Stamford Bridge.
The sole mitigation for City was that the injury to Fernandinho – four weeks out is the worst-case scenario – threw them a loop in midfield. Martin Demichelis was deployed in his place but was soon overrun.
Former City man Dietmar Hamann described Yaya Toure as a liability on Match of the Day earlier in the season and was mocked but it was possible to see what he meant. Chelsea were so fast on the counter-attack that discipline was required but Demichelis could be seen looking around desperately for reinforcements. City played into Chelsea’s hands, but it was a trap perfectly set.
The announcement of Chelsea’s team saw much crowing about Mourinho parking the bus but, despite the solid base, it wasn’t like that at all. Mourinho picked players to thwart City in midfield where they do most damage – Nemanja Matic, in front of the back four was quite exceptional – but he also packed his starting XI with enough pace to trouble City on the break.
Mourinho knew City would see plenty of the ball at home and prepared for it, but he also planned to shock them. So in a first half when City enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, much of it around Chelsea’s area, the visitors scored the only goal, had the best chance and hit the bar.
All on the counter-attack, obviously, but nothing wrong with that. Some of the greatest teams have played on the counter and those coached by Mourinho are invariably champions of the art.
The first 45 minutes, certainly, was as good as it gets; a lesson in how to absorb pressure and return it as energy. In science fiction films the aliens have machines like this. They suck all the firepower out of humanity’s weapons and pay it back in one mighty explosion.
That is what Chelsea did at the Etihad. They should have gone a goal up after 27 minutes when a sustained period of City pressure ended with a suicidally under-hit pass from Alvaro Negredo which necessitated a frantic last-ditch tackle from Demichelis to stop a Chelsea break.
He was unlucky with the rebound, and Chelsea were away. They were four on two when Willian slipped the ball to Ramires, who had only goalkeeper Joe Hart to beat. Ramires is a fabulous lively presence but he is no Deadeye Dick and his finish allowed Hart to make a fine save.
Just five minutes later, however, Chelsea’s tactics paid off. Eden Hazard — Chelsea’s creative heart who was dealt with accordingly by City, much to Mourinho’s fury – exchanged passes with Ramires, whose shot was charged down forcefully by Vincent Kompany. The ball ricocheted to full back Branislav Ivanovic for another decisive goalscoring intervention, striking a low shot from just outside the area that flew across Hart and into the bottom corner.
The Etihad watched, stunned. City never recovered. From there, Chelsea executed their game plan better. City at times looked like the Arsenal of old. Lots of lovely possession, lots of lovely football, but strategically short. Chelsea knew what they were about; they could easily have won by more.
There was a minute to go before half-time when a deep Hazard cross from the left picked out Samuel Eto’o in a surprising clearing at the far post. He struck the ball first time but against the bar. It was the first of a few like that.
Chelsea hit the woodwork twice in the second half – three strikes is the most by any team in the Premier League this season – once from a long-range shot by man of the match Matic that grazed the bar, then from a Gary Cahill header that struck a post, full on.
By contrast, City were surprisingly subdued. David Silva came close twice – one near miss, one fine Petr Cech save – and Stevan Jovetic brought the ground to its feet in injury time, but they never truly got behind Chelsea, not once. It was a master class. A game-changing, myth-busting master class. And it is all very different from here.
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