Jose Mourinho has declared that his Chelsea side deserve to head into today’s Christmas programme as Premier League leaders for the first time in five years and that they are a better, more creative and dynamic side than at the same stage last season.
“I think Chelsea deserve to be top of the league. Chelsea deserve to be top of the league,” Mourinho said, repeating the statement for good measure. His discussion of today’s visitors – fourth-placed West Ham – included an admission that his description of their “19th-century football” last January was “stupid, silly words”, which only went to show how the strength and balance his side lacked back then are present in abundance now.
Mourinho applied that tag following the goalless draw against West Ham which cost Chelsea the chance to go second ahead of Arsenal last January, though the present three-point lead over Manchester City – who are at West Bromwich Albion today – tells a different story.
“You know, I think both teams are different than last season,” Mourinho said of the sides, who meet this lunchtime. “We are a better team. We have more creativity, more goals, more attacking dynamic. West Ham are also a better team. They are not a team just in this moment not to concede. They also try to score goals. After us, West Ham [deserve to be top]. Because to be fourth for a team that everybody was expecting them to fight for survival, to fight to keep the last third of the table, I think is a fantastic achievement. Really. Very good.”
The Portuguese has reason to take strength from his side’s Christmas ascendancy. Chelsea have led at Christmas three times in the Premier League era – 2004, 2005 and 2009 – and gone on to clinch the title on each occasion. Not all managers are as impressive as Mourinho at seeing home such an advantage. Only 50 per cent of the sides who have led at Christmas since the turn of the century have gone on to clinch the title.
Stoke City vs Chelsea player ratings
Stoke City vs Chelsea player ratings
1/22 Stoke: Asmir Begovic
Couldn’t get near either goal, but made a fine stop from Costa late on. 6/10
2/22 Phil Bardsley
Lucky to stay to stay on the pitch after wild lunge on Hazard only drew yellow. 5
3/22 Ryan Shawcross
Frustrated by the movement of Diego Costa all evening. 5
4/22 Marc Muniesa
Like Shawcross, Costa’s movement and Fabregas’s passing flummoxed him. 5
5/22 Erik Pieters
Offered an attacking outlet for Stoke but his final ball often let him down. 6
6/22 Geoff Cameron
Lost John Terry for the goal, and struggled to get into the game. 5
7/22 Steven N'zonzi
Often overrun by Matic and Mikel in the middle. 4
8/22 Jon Walters
Could never quite get a foothold in the game. 5
9/22 Bojan Krkic
The former Barcelona man showed trickery at times, but lacked incision. 6
10/22 Patrick Arnautovic
Offered some invention down the left wing. 5
11/22 Peter Crouch
Shackled with ease by Terry and Cahill. 4
12/22 Chelsea: Thibaut Courtois
Great reactions to deny deflected N'Zonzi strike and quick off his line to cut out high balls. Rarely challenged. 6/10
13/22 Branislav Ivanovic
Inclined to get forward in the first period as Cahill covered his right flank. Not as watertight as Azpi and allowed Assaidi past him in the latert stages. 6
14/22 Gary Cahill
Cut off every supply route to Peter Crouch, dominant in the air and on the deck as the Blues closed out their hosts. 7
15/22 John Terry
Shook off his marker to head Fabregas's corner home for his first goal of the season. Resolute at the back as Stoke were limited to half chances. 7
16/22 Cesar Azpilicueta
Blocking Stoke attempts down the right as they went in search of a point at 1-0. Successful with every challenge. 7
17/22 Jon Obi Mikel
Made some important interventions and looked composed on the ball. Guilty of a few wayward passes. 6
18/22 Nemanja Matic
Provided a great defensive shield - constantly snuffing out Stoke attacks. Fine tackle from the Serbian turned defence into attack but Costa fluffed one-on-one. 8
Was wasteful and struggled to make his mark before being taken off for Andre Schurrle late on. Schurrle made more of an impact in 15 minutes. 6
20/22 Cesc Fabregas
Chalked up his 12th assist of the season and should have had more but for team-mates' poor finishing. Great tracking back to cut out Bardsley and capped fine showing with Chelsea's second. 8
21/22 Eden Hazard
Tireless running at the Stoke defence down the left. Enjoyed a hard-fought battle with Phil Bardsley and set up Fabregas for the second. 7
22/22 Diego Costa
A frustrated forward waiting for his break. Flashed at a shot before steering wide when one-on-one. Denied by Begovic after receiving Schurrle's pass late on. 6
West Ham have completed the calendar year’s most extraordinary transformation, having been fourth from bottom with a mere 14 goals to their name – fewer than half the number they have scored this season – last Boxing Day morning. Manager Sam Allardyce – sacked by Blackburn Rovers’ owners four Christmases ago – will be gratified to hear Mourinho’s glowing reference for him now, 11 months after declaring that he “didn’t give a shite” about his “19th-century” tag. “He’s got a big history in the Premier League,” Mourinho said of Allardyce. “But now this season he’s giving not just the image of the competitive coach who plays in a certain way, he’s playing in a different way. That is what he deserves at the end of the day.”
The effusive praise demonstrated how little Mourinho fears West Ham, for all their new-found success ahead of a challenging Christmas programme in the capital, during which Allardyce’s players will also entertain Arsenal on Sunday.
Arsène Wenger, who reflected ahead of Queen’s Park Rangers’ visit to the Emirates today on a slump from top spot on 29 December last year to sixth and a position 15 points adrift now, admitted that his own side would now “need to be massively consistent to have a chance to come back” and clinch the title. The Frenchman’s suggestion that the rigours of the World Cup had left his squad full with “too many players who were not at their level” will wear thin among the many fans for whom this season has been a bitter disappointment.
“We had no [Theo] Walcott, no [Jack] Wilshere, no [Mesut] Özil, no [Mathieu] Debuchy, no [Laurent] Koscielny, no [Mikel] Arteta for too long periods. No [Olivier] Giroud for three months. It’s like you have half of the squad out,” said Wenger, launching his customary plea for a winter break.
The Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, who has even more cause for regret 12 months after heading into Christmas as leaders, said that he believes last weekend’s late equaliser against Wenger’s side can regenerate his team, who travel to Burnley today.
But the most exuberant manager, Mourinho aside, was Manchester United’s Louis van Gaal, who disclosed that the Old Trafford board had presented him with a top-four target, which he believes he can surpass. Van Gaal, the solitary manager who does not enter his technical area, is up against Alan Pardew today, whose year has included a seven-game ban for head-butting Hull City’s David Meyler.
Van Gaal said there was simply more wisdom in sitting down. “Sometimes players can’t read the match. It’s not their quality,” he said. “So sometimes it’s necessary [to stay in the dugout] but [also] I say you cannot influence during a match because of the loudness of the fans. I [also] don’t think I can influence the referee.”
One of his predecessors, the watch-tapping Sir Alex Ferguson, felt differently. “You think the referee is looking at Ferguson?” Van Gaal replied to that observation. “On television you can see that because every television station is recording the manager, I know. But the referee is not looking at the television.”
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