Thursday, 27 February 2014

FOOTBALL; Mourinho remains the Champions League's master navigator

Mourinho remains the Champions League's master navigator A lingering disappointment but a job done. After 280 minutes of watching the Premier League’s finest outraged and outplayed by depressingly superior European opposition, Chelsea’s uninspiring draw with Galatasaray hardly constituted the most emphatic of Champions League tonics. It did, however, offer further proof that this competition is Jose Mourinho’s favourite terrain.

Much of the pre-match talk centred around the romantic twist of fate that had pitted Didier Drogba against the club and manager by whom he is adored most, but from the first whistle it was Mourinho’s gameplan which drove proceedings on the pitch.

2003-04 Winner (Porto)
2004-05 Semi-finals (Chelsea)
2005-06 Last 16 (Chelsea)
2006-07 Semi-finals (Chelsea)
2008-09 Last 16 (Inter)
2009-10 Winner (Inter)
2010-11 Semi-finals (Real Madrid)
2011-12 Semi-finals (Real Madrid)
2012-13 Semi-finals (Real Madrid)
Chelsea harried their opponents into mistakes and looked to expose their high defensive line at every opportunity. Willian might have punished Fernando Muslera for a poor clearance early on and when Fernando Torres tapped Cesar Azpilicueta’s low cross into an empty net on nine minutes, it all seemed far too easy. Recognising his folly Roberto Mancini blinked first, replacing winger Izet Hajrovic with Yekta Kurtulus in a bid to bolster his midfield with just over half an hour played.

The tactical shift had its desired effect, though Chelsea’s debilitating lack of fluency and ruthlessness in the final third was just as decisive.

“The first half was our game, we had chances to kill the game,” Mourinho told Sky Sports after the match. “I’m not critical of my striker because he had a good game. But overall when we went to counterattack situations we were missing the last pass, the last control, the last choice.”

Galatasaray fought back and were ultimately well worth the equaliser Aurelien Chedjou bundled home on 64 minutes. For the second time in as many days observers witnessed an English team playing well within themselves on foreign soil but, unlike David Moyes’ shambolic Manchester United – as well as Manuel Pellegrini’s tactically naive Manchester City and Arsene Wenger’s emotionally fragile Arsenal – Mourinho’s Chelsea never appeared lost, deflated or out of control.

Chedjou’s strike left a sour taste, arising as it did from uncharacteristically slack set-piece marking from John Terry and rare indecision from Petr Cech. Perhaps such lapses are inevitable; Chelsea looked a tired team in the second half, worn down by a hectic fixture list and the cauldron of noise and pressure in the Turk Telekom Arena.

Yet even on their bad days, Mourinho’s sides usually find a way to take something from big matches. Chelsea have only lost twice this season: The Uefa Super Cup in August on penalties after an epic two-hour battle in Prague with world and European champions Bayern Munich, and an FA Cup tie against a physically fresher and more lavishly talented Manchester City.

When the frustration of this squandered victory subsides, Chelsea will know a win at Stamford Bridge next month will see them into the Champions League quarter-finals. There they are likely to be England’s sole representatives. It is a sombre thought, but such a situation worked out reasonably well for the Blues two years ago.

Of course, some big obstacles endure. Chelsea still lack a worthy striker – though it has not stopped them enjoying a 12-match unbeaten run in the Premier League and surging to the top the table with 11 matches to go – and the enforced absence of cup-tied Nemanja Matic leaves a huge hole in midfield.

If there are more of the unnecessary and cynical tackles that earned Andre Schurrle and Ramires pointless yellow cards in Istanbul, suspensions may eventually take their toll too.

But optimism remains in the knowledge that the Champions League tends to bring out the best in Mourinho. Of the nine full campaigns he has presided over since 2003, two have seen him lift the trophy and, even more remarkably, only two ended before the semi-final stage – both last 16 exits, with Chelsea against a Ronaldinho-inspired Barcelona in 2006 and a transitional Inter against a Rome-bound United boasting Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009.

When it comes to Europe’s elite club competition he is as close as it gets to a master navigator, and if he lives up to his billing this season Chelsea will be a major threat on two fronts once again.
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