Within striking distance

Jose Mourinho, an obsessive trophy hunter, celebrated in equal measure alongside the football stars of today, with championship crowns in four different nations, is again trying to walk the tightrope — where the margin for error is ever so miniscule — to guide an expensively-assembled Chelsea to its first national crown in five seasons. An analysis by Ayon Sengupta.

Title races are perennially fickle. And this unpredictability of sporting contests has given rise to countless journalistic cliches. Yet, many a commander, from time immemorial, has often taken victory for granted, only to be fooled by the glorious uncertainties of the game, thereby managing to ruin even the best of winning hands.

Shrewder and steadier tacticians are always on guard against such complacencies and thus justifiably charge a premium from wealthy owners to lend a steadying hand to a team’s final fortunes.

An obsessive trophy hunter, celebrated in equal measure alongside the football stars of today, with championship crowns in four different nations, is again trying to walk this tightrope — where the margin for error is ever so miniscule — to guide an expensively-assembled squad to its first national crown in five seasons.

Roman Abramovich’s oil riches have given the London club, Chelsea, a star-studded, galactic line-up — a source of envy to any and every opposition. The reintroduction of Jose Mourinho in June 2013 — the original puppeteer of Roman’s privateers (Italian Claudio Ranieri was in charge only for a season after the Russian’s 2003 takeover) — was expected to bring consistency back to the club and make winning an everyday habit. However, upon his arrival in London, the Portuguese, who had won six titles including two English League crowns during his first stint from 2004-2007, found a new set of players, the core of his earlier handpicked title-winning side already dismantled.

In his first season (2013-14), after the homecoming, Chelsea failed to acquire any coveted silverware (though it played a decisive role in the English title race, beating Liverpool with a dour defence during the League’s business end), as the manger tried to reinstall a system of his belief. Mourinho’s footballing philosophy prefers efficacy over artistry and the man is reluctant to allow any player’s virtuoso take precedence over the team’s regimented play. Ruthless in his quest for success, Mourinho had little trouble in cutting off, in January 2014, the nimble-footed Spanish ball-player Juan Mata — Chelsea’s Player of the Year for the previous two seasons. Mata — finally finding a footing in Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United these days — was found lax in defence, slacking in falling back to provide cover during the rivals’ time of ascendency.

But after a year of iron-handed fine-tuning, Mourinho finally had a team of his own and Chelsea set the pace in the 2014-15 campaign, suffering its first defeat only in December, to Newcastle. The Blues have lost only two of their 30 League games, and still remain unconquered at their home fortress, Stamford Bridge. The signing of Cesc Fabregas — surprisingly rejected by Barcelona — and the hustling forward Diego Costa from Atletico Madrid gave Chelsea two readymade on-field stars and the duo played an important part in handing Mourinho the early advantage. Costa (scorer of 19 goals) and Fabregas (with 16 assists) lead the respective EPL charts.

Belgian Eden Hazard, the top ranking individual in the EPL’s cumulative Player Performance Index with 769 points, has been equally instrumental, toying and tormenting opponents with his guile and flamboyance. Chelsea remains sound in defence, a prerequisite of any Mourinho team, enjoying the best record among the EPL clubs, with only 26 goals conceded.

However, Chelsea’s recent form has been a cause of concern for the two-time UEFA Champions League-winning manager. The London club had dropped just 11 points in 19 outings till the turn of the year, but over the first few months of 2015, nine points have been squandered in 11 matches. Chelsea has won only two of its last four home games, whereas Arsenal and Manchester United — the chasing pack — are enjoying a six- and five-match winning momentum.

Manchester City, the critics-predicted adversary, though, has failed to take advantage of the leader’s slip-up. Manuel Pellegrini’s team, trailing Chelsea by three points at the start of the year, is now nine behind, suffering two losses in its last five games.

Mourinho, one of the most proficient practitioners of football management, knows the magnitude of the work ahead. “Four teams now. Look at the points difference. The points difference between second, third and fourth makes me think and feel that they are there,” he recently said about the title race. “We need six victories and one draw from nine matches. A good situation for us, and one all the other clubs would like to have. But it’s pure mathematics. We need to win six matches and draw one. We need to do that and we haven’t done it yet.”

His team took care of one of those six wins, beating Stoke 2-1 at home and opening up a seven-point gap over second-placed Arsenal (at the time of writing).

The tails, meanwhile, are in no mood to give up the pursuit. “If the opportunity presents itself, we will have to be perfect and Chelsea have to be not perfect,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said after its 4-1 conquest of Liverpool. “The only thing which we can master is to be perfect. Chelsea have a difficult programme and so do we. We want to keep the momentum — win, win, win and win again.”

Fatigue has been a growing concern for Chelsea, of late. Nine of its members have made 25 or more Premier League appearances, with skipper John Terry, at 34, playing every minute of the team’s campaign. Mourinho, not a stickler for rotation, has only used 22 players so far (the least in the division), picking just 20 different starting XIs, the League’s joint-lowest number alongside Burnley. Chelsea’s resplendent stars, no wonder, have recently looked jaded. Costa, who was already nursing an injury, played for only 11 minutes against Stoke and is now ruled out for a fortnight with a hamstring strain.

His reluctance to blood youngsters — giving little game time to the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Kurt Zouma — might have left the Portuguese manger with the dire need to find a last minute elixir to rejuvenate his over-worked squadron.

For the remaining short distance towards the EPL title, Mourinho and his weary lot seem to be their own, and only, obstacle.