Mourinho keeps his winger on a prayer

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The Independent Online

Jose Mourinho is not a manager who spares his players' feelings and his assessment of Shaun Wright-Phillips' current form this week could not have been bleaker. The Chelsea manager said there was "nothing" he could do for a player whose dwindling role in the season is playing havoc with his status in the England team ahead of the summer's World Cup and will scupper any hope of a glorious return to Manchester City today.

It has been 14 months since Wright-Phillips was part of the City team that inflicted upon Mourinho's Chelsea their only Premiership defeat of last season, yet he returns to east Manchester today with the prospect of a place on the bench at best.

It is a role that he has come to know well: his start for Chelsea against Fulham on Monday was his first in two months and it ended without glory at half-time when Mourinho moved Joe Cole back to his favoured right-wing position.

As two young Englishmen who will surely play a role in next summer's World Cup, Cole and Wright-Phillips are heading in very different directions under their Portuguese manager. For Cole, the acclaim of being Mourinho's "best attacking player at the moment" after he made Hernan Crespo's winning goal against Fulham. For Wright-Phillips, the isolation of being out of favour with the Premiership's most ruthlessly efficient manager.

"I can do nothing," was Mourinho's response when it was gently inquired of him what he might be able to do to repair the effect on Wright-Phillips' confidence of starting only six Premiership games this season. "This is about timing and performance," he explained. "The players in better condition and playing better are on the pitch. The best thing for him is that in this period I will rotate players and he will get a chance to play and get confidence from good performances."

A marginalised role today against a club where he made 37 appearances as the main man last season will be hard even for a character as sunny and well-adjusted as Wright-Phillips, but he can expect no favours from Mourinho. He bought the 24-year-old for £21m and yet the liberated, free-running style that characterised his best performances for Manchester City last year seems to have been lost in his interpretation of his strict role in Chelsea's match-winning machine.

The cruel truth is that the man he can best learn from is the same who has usurped him in the Chelsea team - because Cole was once again the source of Mourinho's proudest boasts this week when he repeated the claim that it was him who had discovered the real Joe Cole. "No one knew what his best position was," the Chelsea manager said. "Not even him." And on current form, Cole is far ahead of Wright-Phillips in the race for the last place in England's midfield.

As the recipient of Cole's best pass of the day, Crespo was next in line to lavish praise on a team-mate he described as having "good touches like [Zinedine] Zidane" and who had been forced to fight for his place in the team. "At the beginning of the season Joe needed to wait for his moment and now he deserves to play," Crespo said. "He's playing very well. It's no surprise that he's improved from two years ago because he's had the opportunity to play in a great team.

"The great thing about Joe Cole is that he's not similar to anybody. He has good touches like Zidane, but is quicker than him and other players. He's a great player and we're very happy to have him with us."

No side had a better Premiership record against Chelsea last season than City, who took four points from Chelsea, an achievement that Mourinho said was owed in no small measure to the "giant" in their goal. David James is all too rarely described as having played like "the best goalkeeper in the world" but those were the words the Chelsea manager used to describe him this week. For that giant's slightly smaller former team-mate, the wait for praise of equal measure from Mourinho goes on.

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