Mourinho sets sights on taming Dutch 'cannibal'

Khalid Boulahrouz arrives at Stamford Bridge with a fearsome nickname and a reputation as a hard, uncompromising defender, writes Sam Wallace
Click to follow
The Independent Football

They called Chelsea's new signing, Khalid Boulahrouz, "The Cannibal" at his previous club Hamburg, but it was not a nickname created by the fans or the media. "When I'm on the field and I'm up against an opponent," Boulahrouz said on his introduction to Hamburg, "I want to do anything to stop him, even eat him."

By those standards of hyperbole, Boulahrouz's first day at Chelsea's Cobham training ground today should be quite a memorable affair and there is little doubt that the Dutchman of Moroccan descent fits Jose Mourinho's ideal of a committed defender almost exactly. At £8m he has proved one of the most low-profile of all the Chelsea manager's signings but he comes at a time when the richest football club in the world are short of players - especially centre-halves - when times are tough.

Boulahrouz, 24, is one of the few foreign players newly arrived in England who would look upon a trip to Ewood Park on Sunday and actually savour it. For the new hard man of the Chelsea team, a match against one of the Premiership's most physical teams will hold no fears at all. He has built his reputation on being an uncompromising defender with a short fuse and this summer's World Cup finals in Germany did nothing but enhance that.

His vicious studding of Cristiano Ronaldo in the Netherlands' second-round defeat to Portugal was one of the most disgraceful fouls in the tournament and he was later dismissed for a second booking. Asked whether he thought the seventh-minute tackle was more deserving of a red card than the yellow he received, Boulahrouz's answer was unequivocal. "You obviously don't know anything about football," he said. "If you break someone's leg - that's a red card."

Nevertheless, he has been a revelation at Hamburg since joining them from the Dutch club Waalwijk in 2004. In the Netherlands he was a protège of the current Tottenham Hotspur manager, Martin Jol, who had developed Boulahrouz despite rejections from clubs such as Ajax,AZ Alkmaar and Feyenoord who found him difficult to tame.

Boulahrouz has credited Jol, who showed an interest in the player this summer, as having the greatest influence on his career and regards him as something of a father figure. It was Jol who made him a defender when he had previously played as a midfielder, and Jol who persuaded him to control the temper that has regularly got him in trouble.

At Hamburg he will be remembered for his tackling as much as anything else. His stamp on the Armenia Bielefeld striker Fatmir Vata in the Bundesliga last season caused the Albanian to miss about three weeks of football. "Someone like him shouldn't be allowed to play in the Bundesliga," Vata said. "The DFB [German FA] must do something about him. He should be sent to prison for a foul like that."

The nature of Boulahrouz's departure has not, however, done much to aid his legacy at Hamburg. He was named in the team for the first leg of their Champions' League qualifier against Osasuna on 9 August but withdrew during the warm-up citing an injury. The suspicion hanging over Boulahrouz was that he had only just learned of Chelsea's interest and withdrew from the game to ensure he was not cup-tied for the competition.

The Hamburg manager Thomas Doll has hinted just as much recently and said that when he "looked him [Boulahrouz] in the eye" he knew that he did not want to play. Chelsea appear to have appeased Hamburg, and the chief scout Michael Schroeder is understood to be an acquaintance of chief executive Peter Kenyon.

Boulahrouz will have to learn subservience to the team, and the manager in particular, at Chelsea. With 15 caps he is a relative newcomer to international football and joining the Premiership champions is a big step up from Hamburg. There was also a private fear at Hamburg that the medical could prove a problem as Boulahrouz has repeatedly struggled with a knee injury.

Mourinho suggested on Sunday that Boulahrouz could be deployed as a full-back on either flank although he has more commonly been used as a centre-half. What is certain is that he represents a very different kind of player to the now-departed left-back, Asier del Horno. With William Gallas' rift unresolved, and Ricardo Carvalho still unlikely to stay at Chelsea beyond the season, the opportunities for Boulahrouz are substantial.

His acquisition shows the value that Mourinho places on resilient, uncomplicated players - and there is certainly a traditional English stopper's quality about Boulahrouz. He is also well known in Hamburg for his fondness for fast cars and the occasional driving ban - in fact, he seems tailor-made for English football.