Where did it all go wrong, Jose?

Chelsea are nine points clear at the top of the Premiership, heading for the Double and have an owner ready to bankroll a multi-million pound summer spending spree, so why are people hinting at turmoil at the Bridge? Sam Wallace and Jason Burt reveal the power struggles and dressing-room disquiet in Mourinho's empire
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The Independent Football

Cole's question was simple but, given the circumstances, not particularly well-timed: "When," he asked, "am I going to get my chance?" Mourinho's temper exploded and he turned on Cole while the rest of those present were reduced to staring at their feet in embarrassment. For a team nine points clear in the Premiership, the atmosphere in the room was not that of a club making serene progress to their second consecutive Premiership title.

Chelsea face Birmingham City at lunchtime today with the opportunity to put 12 points between themselves and second-placed Manchester United, the title itself could be won by 17 April but life at Stamford Bridge only seems to get more complicated. There are doubts over Mourinho's future and struggles for power and preferment in Roman Abramovich's administration. On the pitch, the recent cheating allegations that have surrounded Didier Drogba and Shaun Wright-Phillips have earned the new force in English football a backlash in public opinion that has discomfited even a club as powerful as Chelsea.

As he did yesterday, Mourinho has, for most of this year, refused to hold his Friday briefings with the press, the same press he kept busy for most of last season with some of the most outspoken opinions and insights of any recent Premiership manager. How radically times have changed. With elimination from the Champions' League, and criticism of his own tactics, he has found the mood of newspapers much more difficult to control then he ever did in Portugal and has chosen to boycott, rather than to engage, with his critics.

The rumours linking Mourinho to Internazionale two weeks ago were flatly denied by the Chelsea manager within hours but at a club where the ground is always shifting he knows better than anyone that an exit strategy is crucial. He has grown tired of having to defend the club alone against rising unpopularity and is battling to keep control of Chelsea's transfer policy. The signing of Michael Ballack this summer will be his choice but the acquisition of a top international striker has been impressed upon him by the club's hierarchy as absolutely crucial. There are growing signs that Abramovich is being more interventionist at the club, assuming greater control in its running through the deployment of Frank Arnesen, the head of scouting and coaching. The 49-year-old Dane, who was poached from Tottenham Hotspur last year, has notionally become Abramovich's personal scout in the hunt for potential new players. It is a development that has not gone unnoticed by Mourinho.

The Chelsea chief executive, Peter Kenyon, is also keen to protect his position as the man in charge of transfer and contract negotiations. Arnesen is regarded as a figure whose urbanity could repair some of the damage done to Chelsea's public image, although any further promotion of a man whose main job is scouting teenagers would be hard for Mourinho to bear.

In the statement that followed the Internazionale rumours, Mourinho said simply that he had a contract with Chelsea until 2010 - "I am happy with the club. The club are happy with me." However, as a man who left Benfica after just nine games, there is no doubt he would leave Chelsea should he feel he has reached the point where control of the club - its transfer policy and its public pronouncements - has slipped beyond his reach.

There are understood to be serious misgivings at the club about the number of diving or cheating incidents Chelsea players have been involved in this season and the debilitating effect they are having on the club's profile. After he reacted theatrically to a glove in the face from Liverpool goalkeeper Jose Reina at Stamford Bridge on 2 February, Arjen Robben was rebuked by senior players at Chelsea in the dressing room immediately after the match as they watched replays of the incident in disbelief. More recent episodes involving Drogba and Wright-Phillips have hinted at a policy, imposed on the players, to make the most of any contact with an opponent. Mourinho's strong relationship with his players, a hallmark of last season's success, has become more strained. There was genuine sympathy for Carlton Cole whose public dressing-down came after weeks of being told that he would get his first-team opportunity. After Mourinho's rebuke of Joe Cole following the victory over Birmingham City on New Year's Eve, some of the players privately said that their manager had gone too far and picked on the wrong individual especially when others were clearly underperforming.

After the defeat to Fulham, Mourinho made a point of tearing up the notes he had made during the match in a pointed gesture designed to suggest that the best-laid plans had been undermined by his players' performance. William Gallas, who is considering his own future at the club and is wanted in Italy, has let slip that Mourinho is prone to losing his temper, something he did rarely in his first season in England. "If we don't play well we know that the boss is going to shout at us and we don't want that," he said.

Robben, meanwhile, has received reassurances from the Netherlands coach Marco van Basten, during a testy season in which his relationship with Mourinho has become strained. The opinion at Chelsea is very much that the Dutch winger is saving his best for the World Cup finals in June and is even less willing to risk his fitness than he was last season. It does not help that Van Basten is no fan of Mourinho and Robben may yet be one of those shipped out of Chelsea this summer.

While Mourinho's relationship with the English press has soured, his lustre even at home in Portugal has slipped. While Portuguese television still pays extraordinary homage to their famous export - the Fulham match commentary there began with five minutes denying any problems at Chelsea - Mourinho has recently cancelled his popular column in a magazine produced by the daily sport newspaper Record. He was furious that they put a line from an article he had written criticising Benfica's coach, Ronald Koeman, on the front page. Mourinho then submitted another column attacking the paper for doing so and when they refused to publish it, he quit.

Despite his success, Mourinho's image back in Portugal has gradually changed, the image of the assured man of the world from his American Express adverts has been replaced with that of a manager in perpetual conflict with opponents and authority. There are also suggestions that his Portuguese back-room coaching staff have not settled in London - one of them is understood to be moving his wife and children back to Portugal and will commute to work.

The club have defended themselves against allegations of Arnesen's influence - and reports that he has been banned by Mourinho from the training ground - as a "ridiculous conspiracy theory". They also say that Mourinho is satisfied with the level of support he receives from other figures in defending his, and his club's, reputation against growing criticism.

To Mourinho, the criticism and internal strife must seem like scant reward for the transformation of Chelsea he has masterminded over the last 18 months. Today will, most likely, see them take another step towards their second Premiership title - an accomplishment that is proving far simpler for Mourinho than consolidating his hold over a club where so many little emperors are vying for power.

Speaking his mind: Verbal attacks and bizarre rants from 'the special one'

* June 2004 After being installed as the club's manager, Mourinho declared: "I'm a special one."

* December 2004 "I am more than unhappy." On Thierry Henry's controversial free-kick at Highbury in the 2-2 draw last season.

* October 2005 "I think [Arsène Wenger] is one of these people who is a voyeur. He likes to watch other people. He speaks, speaks, speaks about Chelsea."

* November 2005 "There is no shame in defeat, on the contrary, it shows that we are the best," he said after two defeats in a week, against Real Betis in Europe and then Manchester United in the League.

* February 2006 "We have not seen two games where we had 11 players versus 11, so we have not seen Barcelona win against 11 - that's all I can say." After elimination by Barcelona in the second leg of their Champions' League last-16 match.

* March 2006 Defending Didier Drogba after allegations of diving: "He's the kind of player I would say 'with you I could go to war'."