Saturday, October 31, 2015

Trick or treat - this could be the weekend I apologise to my F5 key

Halloween is, historically, a frightening festival at Chelsea. In seasons past, it has heralded a dark few weeks of indifferent performances up to and over Christmas, with managers sacked in the process, to be replaced by Guus Hiddink or somesuch saviour, parachuted in to spare blushes come May.

It's a tradition that actually pre-dates Roman Abramovich, his fortunes and his itchy trigger finger, but has been accentuated by the oligarch's propensity to dispense with coaches at the slightest possibility of non-qualification for the following season's Champions League, the competition that bewitched him to begin with.

The Russian's truculence, however, was supposed to have been removed when José Mourinho returned to the club two summers ago. The Special One had become "the happy one", and having pursued Pep Guardiola like a teenager pining for the girl of his dreams, Abramovich appeared to accept serendipity and the fact that Mourinho was the only man who could deliver results and satisfy the fans. Mourinho, by reverse, appeared to accept that Chelsea was his destiny.

So, for the last two seasons, the Halloween tradition was avoided, but this season, however, it began a long time before this weekend. Some suggest it was August 8, when Mourinho blew a fuse that shouldn't have been exhausted on the opening day of the Premier League season, and publicly humiliated Dr. Eva Carneiro for doing her job.

But if you really want to get to the heart of the problem, go back further, to July 23, when Chelsea, on their traditional pre-season tour in the US, were beaten 4-2 by a New York Red Bulls team largely composed of junior players. Chelsea, by contrast, fielded, over the course of 90 minutes a team that included Courtois, Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Zouma, Azpilicueta, Fabregas, Mikel, Oscar, Remy, Azpilicueta, Ramires, Matic, Hazard and Costa.

Even allowing for the fact that no-one really cares about these pre-season friendlies, it apparently left Mourinho simmering, frustration that would manifest itself sporadically over the subsequent weeks. The Portuguese would talk elliptically about tiredness and that this term's pre-season not being as well prepared for as last term's. He was already releasing a thin vapour of obfuscation about why his team, who became Champions in May, were looking somewhat less so in August.

(C) Simon Poulter 2015
Twelve weeks later and Chelsea are 15th in the league, have lost five times, drawn twice and won three. They've been dumped out of the League Cup, a title they were defending, and Mourinho has been fined £50,000 and given a suspended stadium ban for one disciplinary offence, and faces worse for allegedly telling referee John Moss: "Wenger was right. You are fucking soft" last weekend at West Ham.

On top of that, Eva Carneiro has apparently served papers on Chelsea for constructive dismissal, a matter which, if it goes to court, will drag Mourinho through an incident that could have been resolved instantly with an apology. And, who knows, a popular figure at the club could have continued with her job, potentially sparing the team of the original incident's clear role in its destabilisation over the last three months.

Even if you compare Chelsea's season so far with that of Manchester United under David Moyes, it gets worse with every turn. Weekend after weekend, I've been heard to trot out the "just when you think it can't get any worse, it does" line.

Crap has been followed by more crap. Mourinho has cranked his belligerence back up to 2007 levels. Negativity seems to have surrounded the Chelsea manager like the permanent cloud of dirt surrounding Pig Pen in the Charlie Brown cartoons.

And it gets even more worse. This lunchtime, Chelsea host Liverpool, an equally beleaguered team  but one bathing in the glow of a new, media-friendly, impeccably-dentured manager in Jürgen Klopp.

When the fixtures are published in June, the appearance of Chelsea-Liverpool is always one to excite me, and has been since my childhood, when Liverpool were the defacto force to be reckoned with in European football. Apart from anything else, it is the perfect football confrontation - the quintessential Subbuteo fixture of the team in blue versus the team in red. Over the years it has taken on greater weight, spiced up further by the same teams seemingly inevitably matched in the Champions League, with rivalries and conspiracy claims between Mourinho and Rafa Benitez, and that calamitous slip by Steven Gerrard, just when it looked like Liverpool could even win something. I'll admit, all of this has, in the past, added to the appeal of a Chelsea-Liverpool game.

So, after the last decade of Chelsea's ascendancy, with the club supplanting Liverpool in many ways, it's an uncomfortable feeling this morning, knowing that Chelsea appear to be so spent and dysfunctional. True, there were moments of encouragement in last Saturday's defeat at West Ham, and again during the cup tie with Stoke on Tuesday, but - sorry to say - I'm lacking any hope that Mourinho will have been able to build on that in training before today.

Chelsea are lacking in too many places. Take Eden Hazard: his player of the year-winning confidence appeared to go missing when he muffed a scoring opportunity at Wembley in the Community Shield, confronted by former teammate Petr Čech for the first time. And, then, against Stoke on Tuesday and that ultimate, tie-losing penalty kick. Hazard had the look of a man trapped in a glass box.

Commentators and Mourinho himself have talked about being careful what you wish for. After Tim Sherwood was fired, Mourinho was automatically installed as the next Premier League manager likely to get sacked. The press has written of little else in the last two weeks. The hashtag #mourinhoout has even appeared on Twitter, a development as unprecedented as America turning on Jennifer Aniston as its national sweetheart.

But now, two hours before kick off, I can't help feeling that Mourinho, his psychology and the team's mindset, have been on a path of self-fulfilling prophecy. Only a spectacular, compelling, telephone number-scoreline of victory over Liverpool today can save Mourinho's job.

There, I said it, and I'm not happy to have done so. Few have defended Mourinho and Chelsea's tactics under him more than me. I've gladly accepted the 'win ugly' philosophy as I have revelled in the success it has delivered. I've argued with online trolls over their insistence that Mourinho's Chelsea has devalued football (a nonsense concept, given that it takes two committed teams to play a game of football). But.

Over the last three months I've tried to fathom why Chelsea have played so badly. I've tried to understand why the players have been so lethargic, uncoordinated in places, ineffective in others. Has it been physical or tactical? In the end, I've concluded that it can't be either. You can't go from rampant champions in May to knackered has-beens in August and beyond. Not in a club with state-of-the art, multi-million pound training and medical facilities, and a squad so huge that it can afford to loan out 36 players.

No, the only explanation is psychological. The malaise at Chelsea this season has been a mental one. That dust cloud of negativity that has followed Mourinho around since July 23 has tainted the club. And I really can't see what an improvement in performance, starting today, can do to Hoover it away.

And, so, I must apologies to the F5 function key on my computer keyboard. Because I can't help feeling that after this afternoon, and for the next 48 hours or so, it is going to get the hammering of a lifetime as I refresh my Twitter feed, the BBC Sport website, and any other online resource that is likely to deliver the increasingly inevitable headline: "CHELSEA SACK MOURINHO".

Because, surely, it is coming.

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