Jose Mourinho always told us he was “not one out of the bottle” but his managerial and tactical masterclass at the Etihad, which has transformed the title race, was special even by his own standards.
Chelsea’s deserved victory over Manchester City — against a team that had scored almost four goals a game at home against everyone else this season — not only ended the title favourites’ remarkable three-year unbeaten run but burst the myth that the Premier League title favourites are unbeatable. And most of all it underlined that Mourinho’s talent really is as big as his ego.
Of course everyone should know Jose is a man for the big occasion; during his previous spell as Chelsea manager he lost just two games against United, Arsenal and Liverpool out of 19 matches — and this season, too, despite patchy form, Chelsea’s record now includes home and away victories over City and no defeats against direct title rivals. So if ever there was a man to end such a long wait for any away team to win a league match at the Etihad then it was always going to be him.
The work began long in advance — Mourinho plans a press conference just as intensely and as meticulously as a football match — as he piled pressure on City ahead of the fixture in textbook style.
The new big spenders in the Premier League had under-achieved, he said, in relation to their spend and had somehow escaped the kind of criticism Chelsea endured in their early days under Roman Abramovich — and then he cleverly, and indirectly, questioned the way City have wriggled around Uefa’s ‘dodgy financial fair play’ rules to remain eligible for the Champions League.
A week earlier, when this fixture was still a little under the radar, Mourinho aimed another arrow — insisting City were big favourites for the title and Chelsea weren’t even in contention.
Manuel Pellegrini is not the kind of man to get himself embroiled in those kind of rows; but having beaten Mourinho only once in eight previous meetings — and remembering the Special One also knocked City out of Europe when he was manager at Real Madrid — he must have known what he was in for.
Whereas Arsene Wenger played into the Chilean’s hands when Arsenal arrived at the Etihad, opting to try and match their hosts goal-for-goal and pass-for-pass, Mourinho was always going to provide a different, cannier, kind of challenge; especially after seeing Wenger’s side lose 6-3. But what he didn’t do was ‘park the bus’ — a tactic which had seen Crystal Palace come close to causing an upset at the Etihad.
Instead Mourinho played clever; defending deep with both Nemanja Matic and David Luiz in front of the back four but also taking a gamble by leaving three or even four players at times up front, ready for a counter-attack.
The system worked because of the way John Terry superbly marshalled his defence, because of the way Matic and Luiz were disciplined in their movement and yet still creative in their passing — and it worked because of the genius and the pace of Eden Hazard, who is rapidly becoming one the Premier League’s biggest stars.
It was fascinating to see the way City unravelled under the pressure of Mourinho’s tactics.
It is almost certain other teams will study the DVD of this match and attempt to recreate it; perhaps few of them will have a player of Hazard’s quality to call on but nevertheless this result could have huge consequences that go far beyond the loss of three points for Pellegrini’s side.
As Chelsea captain John Terry said: “To come here and win was important — not just for three points for us but for other teams to see they can be beaten. It’s an eye-opener for everyone.”
What was an eye-opener, too, was the sheer power, skill and unity of a Chelsea side that is meant to be in development but is being shaped incredibly quickly by a manager who is quite clearly at the very height of his powers.
Only last week West Ham fans at Stamford Bridge goaded Mourinho by singing: “Your’re not special any more.”
This result shows they couldn’t have been more wrong.
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