Mourinho’s side had been so dire and lacking in energy or purpose at St James’ Park during a 2-0 defeat that the Special One later claimed he had made “11 mistakes in team selection” for the Premier League fixture.
The performance also rattled nerves in the Matthew Harding End as Chelsea supporters recalled previous ‘nightmare Novembers’ that have seen their side regularly endure an autumn slump — Chelsea have won just six of 21 matches played at this stage of the season in the past three campaigns.
But those nerves were steadied — if not completely relaxed — by a comfortable 3-0 victory which saw Eto’o gifted a goal by keeper Timo Hildebrand in the first half and then score a well-taken second after the break, leaving Chelsea — who also celebrated a late goal by Demba Ba — top of Group E by three points with two games to go.
On reflection, this was a nice game for Mourinho’s side to have after their weekend wobbles; and having won 3-0 in the away leg there must have been a temptation for Chelsea fans to think the return fixture was a foregone conclusion against a side who are struggling in the Bundesliga and already 12 points behind leaders Bayern Munich.
However, the combination of a morale-boosting win for Schalke over Hertha Berlin last weekend together with an injury to Fernando Torres, who was his side’s two-goal hero in Germany, sowed at least a seed of doubt that took further hold during an opening 20 minutes in which — prompted by the excellent Julian Draxler — the visitors created three good chances to take the lead.
They were, though, all wasted and the game changed with a moment of madness from Hildebrand, who took so long over a clearance that Eto’o raced in to block it straight back into the German’s net after 31 minutes.
It wasn’t a lead that Chelsea deserved but nevertheless in the context of their season it was an important piece of fortune.
Mourinho’s wry observation in his programme notes that his side were so bad they “deserved to be unlucky” on Tyneside took on a touch of irony as Hildebrand held his head in his hands and, slowly, Chelsea accepted a route back into their manager’s good books.
Even then the threat of Draxler continued to be a major concern, Petr Cech saving well from his left-foot shot, before the tie was finally sealed in the 54th minute when Willian’s driving run saw him thread in Eto’o, who took the ball perfectly with his first touch and then caressed a smart finish across the goalkeeper for 2-0.
Chelsea can now take on West Brom at home on Saturday in a completely different frame of mind to the one that enveloped them at the start of the week when Mourinho called on his side to “develop a football identity” and make sure their attitude and ambition returned for this fixture.
It would be hard to suggest Chelsea got anywhere near achieving the first of those ambitions in what was a largely uninspiring match despite the atmosphere created by Schalke’s noisy away following; but the attitude was certainly there and the growing influence of Eto’o, aged 32, will give Mourinho further encouragement.
Perhaps only playing because of a leg injury to Torres, who will also miss Saturday’s game against West Brom and Spain’s forthcoming friendly internationals, Eto’s experience and composure were the key to an important victory — especially when you consider the Cameroon international was said to be struggling to adapt to English football after scoring just once before this game following a free transfer from Anzhi.
His departure after 77 minutes suggests the African is being lined up for a repeat performance this weekend; and Chelsea’s icing on the cake came in the 83rd minute with a third goal, created by substitute Frank Lampard and finished with an element of fortune off his shin by Eto’o’s replacement Ba for his first goal in the Champions League.
That strike made it three victories in a row in Group E this season and leaves Chelsea needing only a point in Basel later this month to go through; and it even brought a smile from the previously brooding Mourinho, safe in the knowledge his team had responded to his weekend prodding.
It wasn’t particularly pretty; but it may not be a nightmare November after all.
CHELSEA: Cech 8, Ivanovic 6, Cahill 8, Terry 7, Azpilicueta 6, Ramires 6, Oscar 6 (Lampard 81), Mikel 6, Willian 7, Schurrle 6 (De Bruyne 79), Eto’o 8 (Ba 77).
SCHALKE: Hildebrand 5, Aogo 6, Howedes 6, Uchida 6, Fuchs 6 (Meyer 67; 6), Matip 6, Boateng 7 (Kolasinac 77), Draxler 8 (Clemens 62; 6), Jones 7, Neustadter 6, Szalai 6.
Referee: Svein Oddvar Moen (Norway).