Jose Mourinho has enjoyed some remarkable days at Stamford Bridge — in fact it took him 78 matches to even lose a game there as manager — but as he returns to west London with struggling Manchester United today, he will be aware of some pretty painful memories, not least two sackings after poor performances at a ground he once called home.
Certainly the days of Mourinho feeling invincible — or even welcome — at the Bridge are long gone. He can expect no favours from club, fans, or players as the vultures begin to hover over Fulham Broadway, wondering if a famous ‘hat-trick’ of dismissals could be achieved.
It will not be Roman Abramovich wielding the axe if things go wrong this time but the chop would feel no less ruthless, no less painful if United stumble to the kind of defeat which has typified their recent performances against Mourinho’s former club and against almost anyone this season.
A dramatic comeback from 2-0 down to beat Newcastle United 3-2 gave the Special One a temporary reprieve, despite reports in one English national newspaper that he faced the sack no matter what the result in that particular match.
There can be no doubt Mourinho’s future remains on the line as he arrives back in London determined to survive the “manhunt” against him. After all, it isn’t only results which have been the core issue for the United manager’s many critics; it never is. The turgid style of football, his ugly behaviour, his belligerent press conferences, the atmosphere of tension around the club, his constant complaints about a lack of recruitment, and his falling out with key players and members of the board all play their part.
In fact, you could take that paragraph and paste it into the description of the final months of almost every job Mourinho has undertaken over the years, with the exceptions, perhaps, of Porto and Inter Milan.
History tells us fractured relationships and an increasingly negative and pragmatic approach to football are eventually what turn fans and boards off in the end, no matter how many trophies he wins.
So the question is, will this match at the Bridge be the moment which marks the end of Jose Mourinho as Manchester United manager? Or will it prove to be the start of a revival that ends in yet another piece of silverware for a coach who has won 20 trophies already?
Looking to history to find the answer is complicated because both sides of that equation have proved possible in the past, but nevertheless the role that a poor performance at Stamford Bridge has played in Mourinho’s previous demises is significant.
His first sacking at Chelsea came just two days after only 24,000 people turned up to watch a dour 1-1 draw against Rosenborg in the Champions League — a significant pointer given United are now struggling to fill Old Trafford as fans begin to vote with their feet. The second came after a 1-0 defeat against Bournemouth in a season which featured so many other off-field disasters.
Memories of a 4-0 defeat as the manager of United two seasons ago still hurt, too, because Mourinho had been so confident of a warm reception from Chelsea fans but felt his replacement Antonio Conte goaded them into something very different. It was a point he made very forcefully at the end of an embarrassing defeat when, speaking in Italian, he appeared to attack Conte for whipping the crowd into a frenzy after N’Golo Kante scored the fourth goal.
“You do that a 1-0, not at 4-0,” he said, suggesting his rival had been seeking to humiliate him in front of his former supporters.
They also have an Italian in charge at Chelsea this season, of course, but Mourinho can be certain that Maurizio Sarri is not the kind of character to get involved in those kind of mind games. What he can’t be certain of, however, with Chelsea in good form, is that another 4-0 defeat is out of the question. If that happened there really would be a big decision for the United board to make.
What odds on a sack-trick at Stamford Bridge?