The gap between the Premiership leaders Manchester United and defending champions Chelsea has reached six points and Jose Mourinho has not been slow to point the finger of blame. The Chelsea manager has sent a warning to the Stamford Bridge dressing room by naming and shaming three of the five players he believes have been "performing nothing for the team".
In a remarkable and wide-ranging attack on his own team after Saturday's 2-2 draw with Fulham, Mourinho identified Andrei Shevchenko, Salomon Kalou and Shaun Wright-Phillips as three who "cannot perform at a high level". The remaining two are understood to be the £16m Nigerian midfielder John Obi Mikel and the Dutch international defender Khalid Boulahrouz, bought for £7m last summer.
"For me, six points is not a drama, the drama is consecutively you cannot defend," Mourinho said. "And not just defend. Some of the players in other areas cannot perform at a high level. So in this moment you have one hand and in one hand you can find four or five players performing high since the beginning of the season. And in another hand you can find four or five players performing nothing for the team and that's the situation we live at this time."
The shaky confidence of Shevchenko, Kalou and Wright-Phillips has been plain to see, but Mourinho's exasperation with Boulahrouz and Mikel has been more private. The 19-year-old Mikel has already been criticised for turning up late for training. Mourinho is close to losing complete faith in Boulahrouz and dropped him against Reading on Boxing Day to play the full-back Paulo Ferreira at centre-half instead.
It was the most scathing attack on his own players since he took the Chelsea job in the summer of 2004 and was witnessed by the club's chairman, Bruce Buck. Mourinho did not spare Joe Cole who, he suggested, had needlessly delayed having an operation on a stress fracture in his foot and will now miss the rest of the season. By the time Chelsea face Aston Villa tomorrow, Mourinho could find his side nine points adrift of Manchester United they win at Newcastle today.
Perhaps most bizarrely of all, Mourinho also criticised his squad players for complaining that they were not given a chance to play and then failing to produce quality performances when they were in the team. He warned his players that they would have to "close their mouths" if they could not come up with the goods.
"I hope the players have enough character against the situation because it looks like sometimes it is easy for players when they are not playing to complain," he said. "They speak and get some friends and agents and parents to give some words to the press about their boys not playing. But it's more difficult to play and to play well. Some of them [should] close their mouths and not speak too much."
Clearly exasperated at the dire injury situation, Mourinho turned his sights on Joe Cole, who has not played since a substitute's appearance against Manchester United on 26 November. Cole has played just 12 games this season after picking up a knee injury on the club's pre-season tour and has since been diagnosed with a stress fracture of the foot that has caused Chelsea's medical team serious problems.
The club have been unable to decide on whether Cole should have an operation or not and have even sent him on holiday in the hope that the injury would respond to rest. While foot injuries, as witnessed by the array of broken metatarsals in recent seasons, are notoriously difficult to predict when it comes to healing times, Cole has been accused of procrastinating in recent weeks about setting a date for surgery.
Describing Cole's problem as "an injury for ever", Mourinho hinted that he had given up on the player coming back this season. "He has been injured since 4 August, he comes for a week and gets injured again. He comes again and gets injured again, so now he has a stress fracture. He has to make a decision: surgery or no surgery. Some opinions are surgery, some opinions are no surgery. I don't know yet his decision. The time flies and he is still in the same condition."
John Terry's return has never been so eagerly anticipated and he was at Stamford Bridge on Saturday confident that he would be back in time for the home game against Wigan on 13 January. Petr Cech's return date is still uncertain, although Arjen Robben, Mourinho said, should be back soon.
It is a central defender he needs most, however, after spelling out the failings of Ferreira and Geremi. "In this country everybody has tall and strong strikers - they put the ball in the box," Mourinho said. "Against Everton it was Victor Anichebe, against Fulham it was Brian McBride, against Newcastle it was Antoine Sibierski. Always a big, tall striker and we don't dominate the game in the air. That's obvious and what can you do with Paulo? Nothing. What can you do with Geremi? Nothing. As players they have no qualities adapted to the game opponents are doing against us."
While it now appears inevitable that Chelsea will have to buy players in the transfer window this month, Mourinho also attacked the clubs who have named eye-watering fees for their players. With £18m the price at which Manchester City are likely to begin negotiations for the 18-year-old Micah Richards, Mourinho said that he would advise his club not to pay.
"What I know is that if the club ask for my opinion [whether Chelsea should buy] I would say 'Yes', but at the same time when I see the eyes of some clubs and they go for absolutely incredible money for very ordinary players I would say 'No'. A normal player is a normal player and for a normal player you cannot pay a fortune, so if it is like that we will go with the players we have."
The guilty men: Chelsea players in Mourinho's firing line
* ANDREI SHEVCHENKO
Many of the Chelsea players call him "Mr 67"- that is the minute in which he is usually substituted.
* SALOMON KALOU
Showed some skilful touches - but a long way off the strength and finishing needed to lead the attack.
* SHAUN WRIGHT-PHILLIPS
Unable to seize his chance. Only three starts this season; yet to score for Chelsea in the League.
* KHALID BOULAHROUZ
One of the two suspects. The performances from "The Cannibal" at centre-back have hardly been nourishing.
* JOHN OBI MIKEL
The other suspect. After all the controversy with Manchester United over his signing, was he really worth £16m?Reuse content