Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho starts the mind games
Blues boss is using the unusual tactic of talking up a rival as title winners in waiting. But is he making a point to City, his fans or the club's owners?
In only the final of his previous three full seasons in charge of Chelsea did Jose Mourinho find himself off the top of the Premier League at the halfway point, and never before has he found himself third at that stage of the race. There is only a two-point spread separating leaders Arsenal, second place Manchester City and Mourinho's club in third, but it has prompted a different approach from the Chelsea manager.
The Mourinho line for the moment is that City are the team to beat. That they have the players, the depth to their squad and the experience, and that the rest are just trying to keep pace. It may well be the consensus in English football at large but there will also be a reason why Mourinho is now voicing it at every opportunity that presents itself.
When he was asked in the aftermath of his team's 2-1 win over Liverpool on Sunday whether this was a tactic to put pressure on City, Mourinho shook his head. "You think I am? You think I'm capable of it?" he said. "See the squad, see the players, the number of goals, the strikers. [Edin] Dzeko is the third striker of Man City. Dzeko [a disbelieving 'Pfff' ensued]. Do you think I'm putting pressure? [Stevan] Jovetic, the fourth striker [another 'Pfff']."
Whether he is making a point to City, to his own supporters or perhaps even those in charge of Chelsea – or all three – it is hard to argue with his view on City. They have the best array of strikers in the league and their 54 goals at the halfway point mean that they are on course to beat the Premier League record of 103, set by Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea in their 2009-10 title-winning season.
Most of all, Mourinho must see the similarities, in terms of the quality of the City squad, with his first Chelsea team. In that 2004-05 title-winning season he had three players – Didier Drogba, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Frank Lampard – who got into double figures for goals scored in the league alone. As with City now, there was exceptional cover in every position. Only one player, Lampard, played all 38 games.
That Chelsea team reached the halfway point of the season five points clear of the defending champions Arsenal in second place and a further nine ahead of Manchester United, then fourth behind Everton. The following season they were even further out of sight, 11 points clear of United in second place and well on their way to winning the title.
This time around, Mourinho has framed a very different narrative from the summer onwards and, as his team approach the start of the second half of their season against Southampton, that has not changed. This is a group that he says he has to develop, one which he himself suggests is not yet ready to win a title. He praises City's attacking options and yet he says that this month Chelsea will not go back into the market to sign cover in that position.
"I'm happy with them," he said of Fernando Torres, Samuel Eto'o and Demba Ba. "I keep saying that they are not this profile of player that scores every weekend and scores 20, 25, 30 goals in a season. They are not this profile of player, but they are giving everything they have and I am happy with them. And no new strikers in January, because we trust these guys and we go with them."
Chelsea have extensively scouted Diego Costa, Robert Lewandowski and Stephan El Shaarawy, all of whom would be extremely difficult and expensive to sign in the summer, never mind mid-season. But also up for consideration is whether they could return in the summer for Wayne Rooney, a player whom Mourinho has never stopped believing he could still sign.
While Rooney did not push as hard to leave Manchester United in the summer as Chelsea had hoped, should he reach the summer without signing a new deal the London club will take that as fresh encouragement that he could be persuaded to leave. It was not for nothing that they pushed for so long during last summer in the hope that Rooney would come, eventually being surprised by United's firm stance on the issue.
In the meantime, they have kept themselves in touch with the leaders in spite of having a leading goalscorer, Eden Hazard, on only eight goals. The club has bought strikers in the January window before, with mixed results. Nicolas Anelka, Torres and Ba all arrived mid-season. Of those, Torres was a long-term target but Anelka and Ba were brought in to fix problems in the short term. In the case of Ba, who came last January, that issue has still not been solved.
When Chelsea played at Old Trafford in August Mourinho famously chose to select none of these three available strikers and field a team without a recognisable centre-forward. None of them has made an outstanding claim on the job since then. He still has to go to the Etihad and Anfield in the second half of the season and one wonders whether he may do the same again.
Mourinho looks set to continue to talk up City and point to the deficit among his own attacking options. Whether doing so prompts some action from his own club, remains to be seen.
Chelsea confident over fair play despite loss
Chelsea have released their latest set of financial figures and, while they showed a loss of £49.4m over the year ending June 2013, the club is still confident of meeting Uefa's financial fair play regulations next April.
The loss includes roughly £15m of what Uefa categorises as "add-backs" – spending on areas such as infrastructure and youth development, which can be factored out of financial fair play calculations, probably leaving the Chelsea loss at roughly £33m – within the acceptable boundaries. Chelsea's turnover continued to rise while commercial revenue increased by 19 per cent.
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