Football: Mourinho dream machine fights on

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The Independent Online
WHEN JOSE MOURINHO began his coaching career with an ill-fated stint at Benfica he once had to substitute his captain Jose Calado at half-time because the player complained that the opposing side had subjected him to taunts about his sexuality. The episode stood as a warning to the young manager that in future he would have to build his teams around players who could be relied upon not to wilt under pressure.

It was impossible to guess what Paul Dickov was saying to John Terry at Ewood Park on Wednesday night, but there was never any question of the Chelsea captain staying in the changing-rooms when the teams were called for the second half. The Premiership leaders might have found themselves hunted down by Blackburn Rovers' five-man midfield but, while Mourinho condemned his opponents' style, he revelled in the response of his own team.

This was, he said, Chelsea's "big answer" to those in the Premiership who would seek to destabilise his procession to the title with late tackles and tough-talking. "We fought back with the same weapons," Mourinho said and it seemed like the third stage of his side's development was complete. First we were presented with the defensive misers who settled for winning games by the single goal and have still conceded just eight all season. Then the inhibitions fell away in October as Chelsea scored four goals against West Bromwich Albion, Blackburn, Fulham and Charlton Athletic.

Now, as the opposition becomes more desperate, Mourinho has called upon the street-fighting qualities he is convinced his squad possesses. In the early stages, after being caught by Dickov, Terry was unable to place any weight on his right knee for a minute at least. He waved away treatment and, as strength slowly returned to his leg, he plotted his revenge. When the Chelsea captain finally grabbed the little Scot by the collar it was a modern re-enactment of that famous confrontation between Dave Mackay and Billy Bremner.

Of all the doubts that have been raised over his team, there is no question which one Mourinho remembers the most. Sir Alex Ferguson's suggestion that his team would struggle to seal the title around the clubs of northern England was surely what the Portuguese coach was referring to when he talked about playing in the rain. "If we go to Bolton or Everton and it happens to be a rainy day, that's a good experience," he said, "because it rains a lot."

How Chelsea survive without Arjen Robben, as a result of a challenge by Rovers' Aaron Mokoena, will be the next test awaiting their precocious young coach. However, there was good news for Mourinho last night as scans indicated that the Dutch winger would only be out for two weeks, and would be available for the first leg of Chelsea's Champions' League match against Barcelona at the Nou Camp on 23 February. Mourinho does not have another winger in his squad other than Damien Duff to give Chelsea what Robben provided down the left flank for just 12 minutes on Wednesday night.

Certainly not Joe Cole, who seems to have lost his manager's confidence to the extent that, as Robben's substitute, he was not allowed to finish the game. He spent the match being chastised by Mourinho for drifting out of position and his removal with 11 minutes to go was so clearly a punishment that Cole did not bother to wait on the bench to watch the closing stages.

"I am very, very confident that we can cope with whatever we face," Mourinho said post-match. Manchester City's visit on Sunday will be a reminder of a distant October Premiership defeat, Chelsea's only loss of the league season that was sustained in the absence of Robben and Didier Drogba, who remains a doubt.

The shirtless gang that Mourinho led back down the tunnel at Ewood Park, however, looked like they were beyond the mundane details that usually conspire to slow the progress of the faint-hearted. Injuries, ruthless opposition and unsympathetic referees do not seem to count for much now that, as Mourinho put it, his team are "nine victories and one draw away from the championship" and contemplating details of their coronation.

"We could win the title on the last day or in the last minute, it doesn't matter," he said. "We could win it on the last day of the season at Newcastle but I would prefer to win it in our own stadium. But in the end I want to win the title, nothing more."