Jose Mourinho’s considered response, amid all the frantic hype for Monday evening’s game, is to almost call off the title race that his team could well win. Victory at the Etihad Stadium would leave Chelsea level on points with Manchester City with a far easier 14-game run-in. But Mourinho, who has been playing at managing expectations all season, is still resolutely disengaged.
This has been the story for a while. Even over recent weeks, even during Chelsea’s run of seven straight wins that started on Boxing Day and ended on Wednesday against West Ham, Mourinho would not be drawn into admitting the reality of the title battle.
His point is that City and Chelsea are two sides in very different stages of their development, that City have a team built to win now while Chelsea are a work in progress. For now, then, they cannot be expected to compete as equals in the league. Mourinho returned to the topic yet again in his pre-match press conference.
“Next pre-season, day one, I will say we are candidates to win the Premier League,” promised the Portuguese manager. “This season, we are candidates to win the next match.”
So there is no pressure whatsoever on Mourinho’s young side and certainly no immediate presumption of his third Premier League title. The focus, Mourinho insisted, is on the long-term. “If we finish second it is fantastic. If we finished second doing the formation work, it’s an acceleration of our process. We are preparing for next season much more than this.”
There is certainly something to his humble analysis. This City team is built around a core of world-class players of the right age to win titles. Vincent Kompany is 27, David Silva 28, Yaya Touré 30 and Sergio Aguero – missing this evening with a hamstring injury – 25. Beyond those four, City are well-stocked with quality, experience and hunger: Pablo Zabaleta is 29, Fernandinho and Alvaro Negredo both 28.
“The players are very experienced,” Mourinho pointed out, not for the first time, “and the club was champion not 20 years ago, but two years ago. Basically a big nucleus of the players are the same. The players are fantastic, the squad is amazing, but you also need the manager to do a good job and I think he is.”
Asked to name City’s best player, Mourinho mentioned Touré, Fernandinho, even, to illustrate their strength in depth, Edin Dzeko, then the wide players, and then the full-backs. “They are complete,” admitted Mourinho. “They have everything good.”
Chelsea, in contrast to the first squad Mourinho had at Stamford Bridge, are a mixture of veterans and relative youngsters, a group he is having to teach and mould into a competitive unit. They have not won the league since Carlo Ancelotti did it in 2009-10, long before they started the rejuvenating process that is still ongoing. What does Mourinho need to turn them into title-winners? “A bit more time. A little bit more players. Just a little bit.”
Eden Hazard, Chelsea’s one true world-class performer, is just 23. Oscar is 22. New signings Mohamed Salah and Nemanja Matic are 21 and 25 respectively. Marco van Ginkel, André Schürrle and Romelu Lukaku, all of whom might expect to be more involved next season, are 21, 23 and 20.
But for all of that, Mourinho’s words do not perfectly represent the realities on the pitch. While their autumn form was poor, after the Capital One Cup defeat at Sunderland they produced a run full of character, courage and the discipline and focus which fuels every team he has ever put out.
There was a 0-0 draw at Arsenal, where Mourinho used the same deep-seating 4-5-1 he might employ tonight. Then there were seven straight wins, including a 3-0 stroll at Southampton and home victories over Liverpool and Manchester United.
Given the difficulty of City’s remaining games, Chelsea could be equally-likely champions. Even should City go six points clear of them tonight, they could easily drop enough points at Old Trafford and the Emirates next month, and Anfield and Goodison Park in April, to lose the league.
It was on Wednesday night, when Chelsea failed to unpick West Ham and City blew Tottenham away at White Hart Lane, that the football seemed to be backing up Mourinho’s claims again.
Events could well prove him right, and City could win big at the Etihad and run away with the title. But there is little doubt that this year’s Mourinho, humble and patient, is a chosen front. Next year, as he has promised, he will be different again.
“I don’t want to be popular. I want to win, more than ever. More than ever. It doesn’t matter how many times I did it. More than ever, I want to win it. I’m enjoying this process, a process that will end in winning,” he added.