It's looking grim for Chelsea. You would imagine that to be so if you had heard the wisdom of Jose Mourinho, and watched him as he variously shrugged and scowled after training on Friday. It was almost Redknapp-esque as the Chelsea manager produced a litany of excuses in advance: a pre-season of only 15 days, primarily because of many of his players' World Cup adventures; Claude Makelele, for one, unfit; one player, William Gallas, who had gone AWOL, a potentially destabilising influence; and injuries already to Joe Cole and Petr Cech.
"At this moment, we can win and we can lose everything," the Chelsea manager says. "In our hearts, we are on fire. What we don't have yet is fire in our legs."
Don't you just pity the poor man? The reality is, of course, that there would be more sympathy for the Devil, particularly when the teams emerge for today's Community Shield against Liverpool.
In a fixture which will have something of an edge given the teams' and the managers' familiarity, but no real relevance in a title context, he can also expose for his rivals' inspection one of the world's most visionary and influential midfielders, Michael Ballack, together with the executioner every club covets, Andriy Shevchenko. And regardless of a dearth of match fitness, of the odd injury, of personnel problems, Mourinho can be assured that the remainder of the Premiership will be afraid; very afraid.
Like Marlon Brando's Don Corleone, he can accept not being loved as long as he and his team are feared. The bookmakers are wary of him, too. One, Victor Chandler, offers odds of only 8-1 on Chelsea to secure the Premiership and the Champions' League.
That is principally because the title is considered a shoo-in, even though, since the war, only one manager has claimed three consecutive English titles. That man was Sir Alex Ferguson.
"I'm not chasing records," says Mourinho. "I don't want to remember that I won the last two. This is the Premiership I want to win. People with a lot of trophies can lose their anger."
He adds: "Memories are short. I'm not saying people never forget what you did in the past. But football is about today. It's not about yesterday."
I suggest to him that the addition of Ballack and Shev-chenko will merely increase the differential between his club and all others. "Everybody tries to improve. Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea... I don't believe the gap will be bigger," he insists, though not that convincingly. "To improve in terms of results is not easy, especially in this country, where we have won two Premierships and a Carling Cup. But the challenge is to improve the quality of our game without losing the quality of the results."
His principal challenge, most would contend, is to elevate Chelsea to the summit of Europe. He has achieved that honour himself, of course, at Porto. But it must still rankle with him somewhat that the prize has eluded the Blues under his stewardship, particularly as today's rivals were triumphant in Istanbul last year. You suspect he still harbours a sense of indignation over Liverpool's "goal that never was" against his team in the semi-final which secured that final appearance for Rafael Benitez's men.
Already there have been renewed verbal volleys between the sides. Mourinho has suggested that Liverpool are negative and less of a threat to Chelsea than Arsenal and United. Benitez has referred to Chelsea's spending power. On Friday his centre-back Jamie Carragher contributed usefully to the debate, contending that Mourinho was "a great manager, but not a great man. He's just a big baby."
Someone alludes to Benitez's problem with Mourinho, and vice versa. The man from Portugal wags a finger. "Not vice versa. I know my face is not very nice - a bit aggressive [referring presumably to his recently shorn hairstyle]. But don't make me always the bad boy. He has a problem with me. I don't have a problem with him. But I don't really care."
What Mourinho does care about, however, are the demands of Chelsea's owner, Roman Abramovich, a man who can buy the world, as well two successive championships, but for whom the Champions' League title remains elusive. You suspect it is the fact that his nemesis Benitez has seized it which still irks the Portuguese greatly - despite his protestations that the knock-out element of the European competition makes it something of a lottery in comparison to the Premiership title.
That had evidently been his message to Abramovich when the pair had spoken during the club's tour of the United States. "He [Abramovich] is now in football for quite a long time. He understands what is a competition of 30, 40 matches and what is a competition which ends in a knock-out," says Mourinho. "When the Champions' League goes into last 16, it is a competition you cannot control. We can do it, yes, but another six, seven, eight teams also can do it."
He adds: "He also knows that we want to improve because this is our third year; improve our way of controlling and dominating the game. He knows that we can't in modern football - nobody can - win every competition. He knows that we cannot put one competition in front of another competition. I explain all that to him."
Perhaps he should have paraphrased it for him, as someone once nearly wrote on Merseyside: "Money can't buy you luck".
Mac the knife, act one: just a little too scripted
You could almost hear the counselling voices of attendant gurus and assistants: give it to them direct, Steve. Sever the Beckham connection, with no chance of reconciliation. Distance yourself from Sven by referring to "new directions" and "moving on", but nothing too definite. And give 'em passion. Lots of passion.
Someone counted that the new England coach included the word, one that had gone missing from the lexicon of England football, on no fewer than eight occasions. To a degree, Steve McClaren's passion play enabled him to be perceived precisely as he would have desired. The headline in our sister paper, referring to "Brave but brutal McClaren" will have pleased him, and all who sail with him on this voyage of rediscovery.
Perhaps his actions were indeed all his own. Maybe it was just this observer, listening to McClaren's debut on the radio when driving back after time spent with the charismatic Jose Mourinho, who found the whole thing rather too contrived.
There are also aspects of the new regime that are already troubling, and the most prominent is the role of Terry Venables. Splendid coach in his time and a major character in the game. But is the rationale for his appointment correct? Someone to ride shotgun is fine; but if you're the town's new tough sheriff, determined to be your own man, do you really want Wyatt Earp up there with you too?
Most wouldn't. The top club managers - Mourinho, Wenger, Ferguson and Benitez - have a support structure, but their assistants and coaches are virtually anonymous.
And has McClaren been premature and unnecessarily callous in his excommunication of David Beckham? Many will suspect that the act, and its execution, is more about the aggrandisement of a coach who was first choice only in the eyes of the Football Association than making a decision which was long overdue.Reuse content