Having begun the season tipped by many to win the Premier League title, they produced an unconvincing performance in the Community Shield, stumbled through the first few League games and found scoring unexpectedly difficult in the absence of their two best finishers. But was the solution really to sack a hugely successful, much-loved manager?
No, Sir Alex Ferguson remains in place at Manchester United, eagerly awaiting this afternoon's visit of Chelsea now that Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo are back in the fold to improve on a record of four goals in five League games. It is today's opponents who, after a remarkably similar start to the champions, threw their most valuable toy out of the pram and the baby out with the bathwater.
In a familiar example of early-season panic (see Gianluca Vialli and most managers of Newcastle), Jose Mourinho parted company with Chelsea because, according to club officials, internal relationships had broken down and performanceson the pitch were being affected,somehow preventing the team from scoring enough goals.
"If this thing's going to work in the long term, then the relationship between the key people in the organisation has to be right," said the chief executive, Peter Kenyon, as Friday afternoon turned into evening. "It hasn't been right for a long time and it got to the point where it wasn't going to be right in the future. We've reached the point where we have to regroup again and that's what happened."
The timing was on the unfortunate side of ideal, coming as it did just before what is by far Chelsea's biggest game of the season to date and their most important until they visit Ars-enal in mid-December. In the past two seasons it might even have been described as one half of a championship decider between the only two realistic candidates. The exciting possibility, with Arsenal and Liverpool having started so well, is that the Premier League may for the first time become a four-horse chase – as long as Chelsea are not left behind by this self-inflicted handicap.
They are putting an awful lot of faith in Avram Grant from Petah Tikva near the West Bank, who – timing again – could not work with his new players yesterday because of Yom Kippur and today takes charge of a club outside Israel for the first time. He insists that he had Mourinho's approval when he arrived at the club as director of football in the summer; that he has the respect of the players; and that he had no part in stabbing the Portuguese in the back. "I worked with Jose for two months, I think our relationship was good, I enjoyed working with him. I respect what he did. I came to do another job. I didn'tplan to be manager."
Having him in situ proved too tempting to resist, however, the American chairman, Bruce Buck, emphasising that "continuity was important". But predictably, four other Portuguese coaching staff have left with Mourinho, and a new director of football will need to be appointed, offering the possibility of further complicated relationships. "It was an important role three months ago and it's still an important role," Kenyon said. Then there is the matter of Grant's coaching qualifications, which the Israeli Football Association are still attempting to have accepted as equivalent to the required Uefa pro licence.
It seems Mourinho is unlikely to work in England again any time soon, despite all Tottenham's best efforts, and that will leave the country's football all the poorer.He leaves with some remarkable statistics on his CV, such as an unbeaten home record in 60 League games and having lost only three matches out of 182 – home or away, domestically or in Europe – by more than a single goal. It may have been one of those losses, 2-0 at Aston Villa earlier this month after a late breakaway second goal, that broke the camel's back, when television cameras caught Roman Abramovich stomping out of the directors' box like a disgusted fan – a role that the owner frequently seems to confuse with his proper one.
A dull home game with Blackburn, which Chelsea would have won but for a linesman's error, followed, and the decision to dispense with Mourinho'sservices was apparently made before what will go down as a hugely anti-climactic farewell against Rosenborg, a team ranked 80th by Uefa. Even then it would have been a more satisfactory note on which to bow out if Andriy Shevchenko, Michael Essien and others had taken a normal percentage of their 29 scoring opportunities.
If Ferguson is laughing up his sleeve about his rivals' build-up to this afternoon's game, he might also ask whether there can be all that much wrong with a team who create so many opportunities while lacking their two highest scorers. Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, who contributed 123 goals to the Mourinho era, were missing from the Blackburn and Rosenborg games (Lampard was also absent at Villa Park) and neither is fit to resume at Old Trafford today.
That could prove crucial, as encounters with United have all proved particularly tight during the past 12 months. There were the two draws in the Premiership last season before Chelsea, having reluctantly clapped United on to the Stamford Bridge pitch as champions last May, snatched the FA Cup at the end of extra time and then lost the Community Shield on penalties.
Their body language and mental approach today will be fascinating to behold. In the red corner, Ferguson may be hoping for dispirited, unsettled opponents, but he does not expect it. "Over the last two years Chelsea's consistency has been so good not a lot of teams have beaten them, us included, although they have had a lot of draws," he said. "That's an indication of how difficult they are to beat. They eke something from a game. Last season we outplayed them first half but they got a corner kick and a little break and scored. They are capable of doing that because they have a good determination about them not to give in in matches, and this won't be any different. It will be a hard, hard match.
"It's easy for the Chelsea players in one respect because they are playing United, and you wouldn't think they would want any motivation for that. It might have been more difficult if they were playing a lesser team."
Grant, he revealed, used to visit United's training ground when he was coach to the Israeli national team, looking to pick up some tips from the old master whose side dominated the Premier League in the years BM – Before Mourinho. "Jose and Chelsea were one of the greatest challenges I've faced as a manager," Ferguson said. "After years of having Arsenal as our main and most consistent challengers, in one season Jose came in and turned the whole table upside down in that respect.
"Ever since he arrived at Chelsea they were always up at the top and he made them the team you were looking to beat. The two years they won the Premier League back to back they did it in the first few weeks of the season with their consistency. I really enjoyed the competition with him. It was something new for me because he was the new kid on the block. It became harder for us, there is no doubt at all about that – Jose made it harder for us all."
Mourinho's chances of a Premier League hat-trick were hampered when John Terry and Petr Cech suffered injuries last season and points were dropped either side of the new year. The suspicion now must be that losing Lampard and Drogba at the other end of the pitch could cost them just as heavily. Missing Rooney and Ronaldo has already hindered United, who scored a mere four goals in five League games before winning 1-0 at Sporting Lisbon in midweek.
"They have the players but we are concentrating on what we can do, that is the important thing," Ferguson said. "We are looking for a performance and the results are getting better. The second half in Lisbon was good on a really difficult pitch but we played with good discipline in the first half, we didn't overstretch ourselves, we made sure we made it difficult for them. In the second half we were a different team."
A different team is presumably what Abramovich is hoping to see in blue shirts (or those hideous fluorescent yellow ones) from now on. Grant's reputation as a conservative coach does not, however, suggest any dramatic change in style, merely a quieter life all round. That will be no consolation whatever to the distraught supporter who rang a phone-in on Thursday to say: "We've got rid of the man who's the best manager in Europe."
Stats of the Special One
League: 1st. P38 W29 D8 L1 F72 A15 95pts
Biggest win: 4-0 v Blackburn (h), Newcastle (h), Norwich (h), Charlton (a)
Biggest defeat: 0-1 v Manchester City (a)
Longest unbeaten run: 29 games
Champions' League: Semi-final
FA Cup: 5th round
League Cup: Won
Overall: P59 W42 D11 L6 108-34
Longest unbeaten run (all games): 15
Leading scorer: Lampard 19 (3 pens)
League: 1st. P38 W29 D4 L5 F72 A22 91pts
Biggest win: 5-1 v Bolton (h)
Biggest defeat: 0-3 v Middlesbrough (a)
Longest unbeaten run: 13 games
Champions' League: First knock-out round
FA Cup: Semi-final
League Cup: Third round
Overall: P53 W36 D8 L9 F94 A33
Longest unbeaten run (all games): 18
Leading scorer: Lampard 20 (6 pens)
League: 2nd. P38 W24 D11 L3 F64 A24 83pts
Biggest win: 4-0 (Watford (h), Wigan (h)
Biggest defeat: 0-2 Liverpool (a)
Longest unbeaten run: 14 games
Champions' League: Semi-final
FA Cup: Won
League Cup: Won
Overall: P63 W42 D16 L5 F116 A41
Longest unbeaten run: 23 games
Leading scorer: Drogba 33
League: 4th (to date) P6 W3 D2 L1 F7 A6 11pts
Biggest win: 3-2 v Birmingham (h)
Biggest defeat: 0-2 v Aston Villa (a)
Overall: P7 W3 D3 L1 F8 A7
League: P120 W85 D25 L10 F215 A67 280pts
Home: P60 W46 D14 L0 F123 A28
Biggest win: 5-1 v Bolton (h) Oct 2005
Biggest defeat: 0-3 v Middlesbrough (a)
Longest unbeaten run: 29
Overall: P182 W123 D38 L21 F336 A115
Home: P92 W69 D21 L2 F193 A47
Biggest win: 6-1 v Macclesfield (h) Jan 2007
Longest unbeaten run (all games): 23
Leading scorer: Drogba 63
Only home defeat in normal time: 1-2 v Barcelona Feb 2006.
Premier League: 2005, 2006. FA Cup: 2007. League Cup: 2005, 2007
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