The uneasy relationship between Jose Mourinho and Andrei Shevchenko was again laid bare yesterday with the Chelsea manager saying he "hoped" the striker is ready to perform – and implying that time was running out for him if he isn't.
The 30-year-old – he is 31 later this month – is expected to start today's Premier League match at home to Blackburn Rovers, having failed to even make the Chelsea squad so far this season despite declaring himself fit. The match amounts to a final chance for the Ukrainian who has said he is at a loss as to why he has not been selected before now. But Mourinho had a simple answer for that: "He didn't ask me why and I didn't say why."
Asked to then explain why he felt the £30m trophy signing had not performed as expected for Chelsea since his arrival last year, Mourinho said: "I think it's not a question I will answer. It's a question I can't answer because I cannot tell you everything that I think. I cannot tell you every detail of my work."
However, Mourinho has continually made plain his unhappiness about Shevchenko's attitude and application. Privately he has previously told friends he feels the former Milan striker has simply joined Chelsea to be "on holiday" – he is close to owner Roman Abramovich – and complained about the way he trains. Publicly the criticism has not fallen far short of that condemnation either.
But Shevchenko will make his first appearance since April today against Blackburn although that is simply because Didier Drogba is unfit and Claudio Pizarro, the Peruvian signed in the summer, was still returning from international duty yesterday. Shevchenko, too, has played for his country twice in the past week with Mourinho watching both matches, away to Georgia and at home to Italy, on television.
Shevchenko scored in the latter game and amid the words of encouragement from Mourinho about his performance – "he worked very hard and played very well" – there was also a damning of faint praise. "Italy are the world champions," Mourinho said. "A team where he knew every one of the players, where he knew the cameras and Italian eyes were on him. So it could be a special motivation."
There has been talk of a return to the San Siro, where he spent six successful seasons, and although Shevchenko insists he is settled in London, he appears far from settled at Chelsea. Mourinho confirmed his absence from the side to date was about more than his back problems. "I think it is not just about fitness," Mourinho said. "Sometimes players have a great fitness situation and they are still not performing well, but I think he is improving in every aspect.
"I always say that a player is not fitness, not technique, not tactical, not psychological. A player is a whole. And he needs to be good in every aspect, because in the end it is just about performance, and performance in relation to the coach's ideas and to the team philosophy."
Fitting in has also been an issue Mourinho has had with Joe Cole in the past. Cole is again struggling to break into the side having apparently fallen behind Shaun Wright-Phillips in the pecking order. It is known he is frustrated and is understood to have confronted Mourinho after the recent league game against Portsmouth. Does Cole need to be patient? "First of all, he is very patient this season but I was very patient last season because last season, I was waiting six months for him [because of injury] and he was never back," said Mourinho.
The manager said he had spoken to Cole on his return from international duty. "I told him yesterday my feedback about his performance for England and I told him basically that he was not the man of the match but he gave a big contribution for his team in both matches and I think that's the objective of every player," Mourinho said.
Chelsea have had a vexed start to the campaign, with the 10 points they have earned from the opening five league games the lowest return in five years, and Mourinho has faced another personnel problem: Michael Ballack.
It appears the German midfielder may have to face a third operation on his ankle and Chelsea have recently been drawn into a dispute with the German Football Federation about the 30-year-old's fitness. He has also been excluded from the club's Champions League squad.
"It was an easy decision because it was not my decision," Mourinho said. "It was the medical department's decision. But the decision is difficult from the perspective that he is a player who you like very much. He is a player you want badly to have in the team. I remember last season against many, many critical opinions of him, I was one of the few that supported him all the way. This season is not different. I want and need him back and I am sad that he is not an option for me. But for four or five months he has done not one single training session for us, zero."
If Mourinho isn't happy then neither, it appeared, was Abramovich as he rose from his seat before the end of Chelsea's last league game, the defeat at Aston Villa a fortnight ago. "Only him?" Mourinho said when asked if the billionaire was displeased afterwards. "It's is a pity you could not travel on our bus – because on our bus 40 Abramoviches."Reuse content