Jim White

How masterful Mourinho proved he’s still the best in the business

Jim White

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It wasn’t a celebration. Talking to the press after his team’s stirring victory over Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League quarter final, Jose Mourinho was very keen everyone understood his dash down the touchline at the game’s conclusion was not in any way a triumphalist thing.

This was not a Phoenix from the Flames-style recreation of the moment 10 years ago when he announced himself to English audiences by sliding on the knees of his expensive suit down the touchline at Old Trafford to mark Porto’s unlikely win over Manchester United. No, sir. What he was doing after Demba Ba had scored Chelsea’s second goal in the 88th minute as he legged it to the corner flag was something altogether more substantial than merely joining in a group hug.

“I had to go there because I know it was the only chance I had to tell them what we had to do in the last few minutes,” he said, after he had recovered his breath. “But I showed you I could run.”

We can speculate cheerfully about at which point in his mad dash he decided he was heading there to dish out commands. Because when he set off, arms flailing, mouth roaring out his joy, it certainly looked like he was going to dive on top of the human pyramid of his players in the reckless abandon of victory.

But his insistence that he went down there for higher purpose (and indeed he did urgently whisper something in Fernando Torres’s ear – perhaps telling him to pack his bags in preparation for a move back to Atletico) was typical Mourinho. Always thinking, always one step ahead, always taking the opportunity to seize the initiative. And last night was a brilliant performance from the Special One.

Not just in his own demeanour – the Tony Pulis dogs-of-war outfit, the refusal so much as to acknowledge Andre Schuerrle’s opening goal, the hands thrust deep into his pockets throughout – but in the manner he set out his team. His selection of Frank Lampard and David Luiz in central midfield gave the immediate indication that he was taking this as a scrap, that instruction had been delivered to his players to fight their way to the semi-final.

It worked, too. By the end it was not just the tracksuit that resembled Pulis: the tactic of hoofing everything long as PSG’s defence sank ever deeper was perfectly realised. Ba’s goal at the conclusion of events looked like something straight from the Crystal Palace training ground.

The fact is, as was demonstrated in this game, Mourinho is simply the sharpest thinker around. His planning, his execution, his delivery are unrivalled in England, even by the new wave of bright young managers, the likes of Roberto Martinez, Brendan Rodgers and Mauricio Pochettino. But there is something else about Mourinho which marks him out. He is lucky. Clearly there is way more to his game than simply the accretion of good fortune. But like all good generals, he leavens his genius with a healthy sprinkling of luck.

Take what happened after 10 minutes at Stamford Bridge last night. Eden Hazard, his most influential attacking spirit, suddenly started hobbling. If Mourinho were Arsene Wenger or David Moyes this would have been the signal for disaster to ensue, the final kick in the teeth. Mourinho, though, sent on Schuerrle in Hazard’s place and the German was simply magnificent, providing every bit as much threat as the departing Belgian might have done.

The Chelsea manager was also fortunate that Edinson Cavani arrived in London without his shooting boots. Twice in the second half the Uruguayan forward was through on breakaways with opportunities to put the Parisians in the semi-final that he should have buried. Roy Hodgson will be hoping Cavani is as profligate as that come June.

Not that Mourinho would accept for a moment that fortune is smiling on him. His narrative from the start of this season has insisted that everything is stacked against him. His team is too young, he has no forwards, the financial fair play regulations are furring up his room for manoeuvre, UEFA and the Premier League are conspiring against his every move: poor guy, you would think managing a club as blessed as Chelsea were a curse, not a joy.

You only had to take a look at his face when first Schuerrle then Oscar hit the bar with shots before Ba’s decisive goal to appreciate his state of mind. As the ball twice cannoned off the woodwork, he turned to his coaching colleagues on the bench and rolled his eyes heavenward as if suggesting there is nothing you can do when the fates are stacked up against you.

It is all, of course, an act. He knows full well what he has: he has negotiated the club’s eighth Champions League semi-final, even as the Premier League title is there for the taking. This team he has claimed all along are not ready are now in a position to execute the kind of finish to a season his rivals would kill for.

It is the perfect position he has negotiated for himself: now if Chelsea stumble he can say he told us all along they weren’t yet up to the job. But if they get their hands on the silverware, it will be rightly viewed as the ultimate triumph of management. Producing results like that from a work in progress would be a victory worthy of a celebratory hurtle down any touchline.

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