If there’s an upside for Jose Mourinho in the official confirmation of the loss of Diego Costa for today’s juggernaut collision with Manchester City at Stamford Bridge, it’s that, in reinforcing his conviction that everyone is out to get Chelsea, the striker’s three-match ban is just one more provocation with which the world’s most put upon gaffer can rally the troops before they go into battle against their main title rivals.
In fact, the wise men of the FA doing no more than Mourinho would probably expect of them must almost have come as a relief after the shock to his system of hearing that Gary Neville had taken to the tweet machine to say that he didn’t think the charge of violent conduct could stand against Costa.
Mourinho only recently added television pundits to his already bulging blacklist of Enemies Of The Bridge, so Neville’s take – followed soon after by Paul Scholes defending the striker – must have had the manager struggling to work out how he might turn all this unexpected and untimely support into the kind of negative energy which he is so expert at wielding to his advantage.
Or, rather, his team’s advantage – because that is all that is ever at issue for Mourinho, despite the perception that he has never been shy about trying to make himself bigger than every club at which he has managed.
And while it’s true that the self-styled ‘Special One’ has been able to manipulate some of the biggest egos in football in large part by having the most well-developed ego of them all, this has never been at the expense of his recognising one of football’s most fundamental and enduring truths: all managers are only as good as their results.
It’s all a means to that end for Mourinho, all of it, from the tactics board to the training ground to the press conference room, the latter a place where even his absence can speak louder than words about his perception of a football world brutally divided between them (referees, analysts, the FA, rival managers and possibly the tooth fairy) and us (Chelsea Football Club).
If anyone can make a virtue of the banning of a striker who has scored 17 goals in 19 Premier League games, by refashioning the blow as an inspiring cause celebre in the dressing room, it’s Mourinho.
It has always been his way. His serial success at some of Europe’s biggest clubs clearly speaks of a number of outstanding managerial attributes, from tactical adaptability to a perceptive eye for talent. But it’s his ability to imbue the modern, multi-millionaire football dressing room with old-fashioned, one-for-all esprit de corps which is, for me, his winning signature.
And if that entails him moaning, sulking, provoking, fostering a siege mentality, turning a blind eye to his own players’ excesses, and generally making himself as much of an enemy of some people in football as he seems to think they are of him, then he’ll gladly go the extra mile, just so long as the scoreboard is in his team’s favour at the end of 90 minutes. (And the fact that you suspect his tongue is firmly embedded in his cheek a lot of the time rarely detracts from the intended impact).
Of course, when the scoreboard tells not only of a bad result but of something much worse – as when Bradford humbled the Blues in the Cup – there is no harsher critic of his charges than Mourinho himself.
There aren’t too many managers who would be willing to describe their team’s performance as “a disgrace” and fewer still who would do so without fear of provoking a player backlash. But Mourinho’s men have all benefited sufficiently from his backing to feel that, like a loving father let down by his sons, he merits the right to be dismayed.
As to Costa’s ban, Gary Neville was onto something when he pointed out that the player was not looking when his studs landed on Emre Can’s leg, a view endorsed by Mourinho’s contention that the contact was accidental.
On the other hand, professional footballers, with their well-developed spatial awareness, tend to have an intuitive feel for where exposed limbs are in situations like this, even without recourse to Pele’s fabled peripheral vision. And Costa, as we know, has more than a bit of form in what are euphemistically referred to as the black arts.
In any event, the upshot before a ball is even kicked in today’s game at the Bridge, is that the biggest loser is an audience hoping to sample the very best that the Premier League can offer, Yaya Toure’s absence for City and doubts also about Cesc Fabregas’s participation for Chelsea, only adding to the sense of a blockbuster production robbed of some of its leading men.
Still, the understudies are pretty useful while, in Eden Hazard, the home side can boast a player whose quicksilver ability to escape the tightest of marking, makes him one of those rare ones, in any era, worthy of the price of admission alone.
The nine goals Chelsea conceded in the games against Spurs and Bradford would appear to make a retrospective mockery of earlier declarations of their putative invincibility, while it’s also true that, on a blue moon day, Manchester City can click sufficiently to beat any team put in front of them – and in some style. But in what is a contest between a talented collection of players (City) and a talented collective (Chelsea), I would expect the team stuck together with Mourinho’s glue to end today with, at least, their lead at the top of the table intact.
Where the manager’s head will be at is another matter entirely.