The Parc des Princes is not Selhurst Park, Paris Saint-Germain are not Crystal Palace; and, without in any way underestimating the side sitting 13 points clear at the top of Ligue 1, Jose Mourinho believes it is just as well. One of the conclusions Chelsea’s manager reluctantly drew from his side’s totally unexpected 1-0 defeat to Tony Pulis’s relegation candidates was that he has players in his squad who can barely be bothered with such mundane assignments as a Saturday afternoon in south London, but will rouse themselves once that Champions League music echoes round one of the great grounds of Europe.
The only individual Mourinho publicly rebuked was the ballboy allegedly guilty of delaying tactics, who the Chelsea manager feared might become a target for assault from Cesar Azpilicueta, just as happened with Eden Hazard at Swansea last season. Never one to criticise a player in public, he nevertheless dropped some heavy hints about those he was most displeased with, exonerating by name the back four (and presumably goalkeeper Petr Cech, who could do nothing about John Terry’s unluckily headed own goal). Asked, however, about the hapless Fernando Torres, he said: “I like to analyse individual performances when I can say ‘phenomenal performance’. So I prefer to say from my four defenders [it was a] phenomenal performance, the others I prefer not to analyse individually.”
Torres and several other expensively acquired and handsomely remunerated players would have been in his mind when he talked about those who “disappear” in some games and added: “Clearly, during the season, we have players up and down in relation to the profile of the match. Stamford Bridge is better than away. Playing away against Arsenal or City or United or Liverpool is one thing, and another thing is to play Crystal Palace away or West Bromwich away or Stoke City away.”
It was a shocking condemnation, yet with the Champions League to play for – if no longer, he insisted, the domestic title – the manager still has to look for some positives. “Paris is the kind of match they feel comfortable to play,” he said. “Big match, great stadium, opponents with top quality, the profile of referee who stops a lot and doesn’t let aggression into the game. They will be fine. They will be in their natural habitat in that match. They can do a good match there.”
Those observers who felt he was messing with minds by insisting for months Chelsea were not title favourites still see deviousness in the manager’s proclamation that it is “impossible” to win it now. To be fair, he was speaking before Manchester City dropped two points at Arsenal but the dispiriting performance in a second successive away defeat backed up his assessment.
He did admit that when on top of the table “you have in the back of your mind the little feeling that you can still do it... but the reality is different.” The party line now is that what matters in the remaining six league games is securing a place in the top three, adding some of the “balls” that the manager felt was missing from too many players and identifying the striker Chelsea desperately need to sign this summer.
In the meantime there is the biggest club trophy of all still to play for, starting on Wednesday. Unfortunately, given the efforts of Torres and Demba Ba at Selhurst Park, Samuel Eto’o is unlikely to be fit and, in coming up against his former Internazionale centre-forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mourinho will be made aware of Chelsea’s greatest deficiency.
For Palace, the target is to pick up some away points against fellow strugglers Cardiff on Saturday, West Ham and Fulham, rather than relying on further acts of heroism in the final two home games against Manchester City and Liverpool.
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