James Lawton: No rhythm for Blues as Mourinho's belief starts to ebb away

'The loss of Terry has sent gusts of doubt through the defence'
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The Independent Football

These surely are the days when the myths and legends of Jose Mourinho are crowding against a harsh reality. Here, last night, his ebbing belief in his hugely expensive team, and maybe even in his own infallibility, was pushed to still another perilous place. Chelsea are supposed to be merely stripped temporarily of key personnel but, as they failed to close significantly on Manchester United at the top of the Premiership, that seemed to be the most optimistic diagnosis.

The agonising question for the "special one" concerns whether, when currently stricken troops return to the trenches, they will be accompanied by the old sense they are a team of destiny - led by one of the most extraordinary motivators football has seen.

For Mourinho the problem is that he might have been too free with his censure. He might have broken down a little too much of the old trust. Counting the wounded - and the "disappeared" - had left Mourinho with an expression so careworn that you had to wonder how many of the old certainties were left when his struggling central defender Khalid Boulahrouz limped off in the first half.

There could be no question, however, about the most serious casualty. It was the old belief that Chelsea had a rhythm and a strength which made them as relentless as they were unlovely. Villa started so tentatively you might have thought they had missed the unfolding story of Stamford Bridge crisis, but long before half-time they were entitled to reach some harsh conclusions of their own.

The most devastating was that it will probably take something more than the return of the deeply missed captain John Terry to make Mourinho's men anything like the force which seemed to have whipped the rest of English football into servitude at least a year ago. The loss of Terry's authority, combined with the absence of goalkeeper Petr Cech, has sent gusts of doubt through the Chelsea defence but here the problem seemed to have widened.

Not so long ago, one moment of power from Drogba would have settled any Villa presumption that they had the right to operate as equals but, at a point when Chelsea needed maximum reassurance, even his bankable conviction went missing. Michael Essien, formerly an elemental power in the Chelsea machine, engulfed the left side of the Villa defence before crossing quite perfectly into the path of the prodigious man from the Ivory Coast. Unaccountably, Drogba sent the ball over the bar with only the goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly to beat.

For Mourinho, this must have been the cruellest twist of the knife that has appeared at his throat so menacingly in the last few weeks. Drogba, once the controversial traveller between glory and disdain, has become not so much a hero as a constant reassurance, and even after the failure to convert the chance provided by Essien there were still times when he looked more than anything like a force of nature. His ability to leave Liam Ridgewell and his team-mates floundering at a turn of his heel remained, by some distance, Mourinho's best hope of staying in touch with United.

Yet rarely can Chelsea's menace have been spread so thinly across a team that is too often displaying a loss of self-belief, and in this unwelcome place no one fretted more profoundly than the anxious Frank Lampard. None of Lampard's concerns can, however, have matched the intensity of those of Mourinho as Villa began to believe they not only could achieve parity with the dwindling champions but also perhaps could even beat them. The suspicion grew sharply after Mourinho admitted that the demoralisation of Shaun Wright Phillips was just about complete - it had been a torturous process - and brought on the equally lost Andrei Shevchenko.

Some time, and when better than now, Mourinho must have concluded, the great Ukrainian talent must make some kind of reappearance. Such hope seemed remote, however, as the emboldened Villa began to build pressure - and win corners. On the touchline the difference in the demeanour of the Villa manager, Martin O'Neill, and Mourinho began to tell its own telling story. O'Neill, who has been having more than his own share of disappointments recently, became increasingly animated as his team clutched at the belief they might just deliver another heavy blow to an empire that so recently seemed so impregnable.

Mourinho briefly appeared above the parapet. He did it more reflectively than perhaps at any previous time in his extraordinary attempt to annex English football. A bitter truth was that even the menace of Drogba was suddenly something of a crumpled guarantee.