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Chelsea welcomes pressure vs. United
It was Mourinho’s first fixture in the Premier League. Sunday, Aug. 15, 2004. And his main memory is of walking to work from his home in the neighborhood a few hours before the game -- he said it couldn’t happen if, say, his Porto had been meeting Benfica in Portugal.
Memories of the game itself are few. Chelsea won ugly. At least there were no tributes to how good Mourinho’s men looked as they prevailed through a single goal from Eidur Gudjohnsen, scored in the 15th minute.
They won the next game, away to Birmingham City, 1-0 as well. They won four of their first eight games 1-0. There were also two scoreless ties. And then they went to Manchester City and lost 1-0. Enough. They never lost again as the West London club became champions for the first time in half a century.
The goals flowed now, four each coming against Blackburn, West Bromwich, Fulham, Charlton, Newcastle and Norwich before Christmas. Mourinho had got the hang of the English game. With the help of squad reinforcements funded by billionaire owner Roman Abramovich, he was to dominate it for two years.
And then his relationship with the Russian became strained. He went to Inter in Italy and then Real Madrid in Spain and enjoyed success there too (with Inter especially) but the sentimental return to Stamford Bridge this summer suited Mourinho as much as the still-adoring fans. He says he doesn’t fancy his Chelsea’s chances of picking up another title -- to go with his two and the one the club collected under Carlo Ancelotti in 2009-10 -- just yet. Not while Manchester City and Arsenal are in such rich form.
If Chelsea were to deny Arsenal or City the honor, he says, it would be the greatest achievement of his career and, while that declaration may have been strategically timed -- his team go to the Etihad Stadium in little over two weeks -- most observers would agree that Manuel Pellegrini’s squad is the favorite.
Not that United’s suddenly acquired status as the second team in Manchester will do much to reduce the allure of Sunday’s visit to the Bridge. It’s an new era, after all, with David Moyes preparing to take the seat in the away-team dugout that, from 1986-7 to 2012-3, was occupied by Sir Alex Ferguson or, as he became known after United’s treble of 1998-9, Sir Alex.
There have been signs lately that Moyes, after a turbulent start, is settling into the job of United manager, despite the injuries that have deprived him of star strikers Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, the latter a transfer target for Mourinho in the summer. At Old Trafford early in the season, he oversaw United’s contribution to a sterile and scoreless game with Mourinho’s openly defensive Chelsea, but the pressure to win will shift to the Special One this weekend.
"Man United are Man United. Eleven points is a big gap but I believe they'll push all the way," said Mourinho in a press conference. "We play against the champions. We play Manchester United, not a team 11 points behind the leaders. I've played many big matches and this is what my experience tells me. A team that appears to be in the most difficulty can be the most dangerous."
Another draw would probably be considered a creditable result for Moyes. Of course he’d love a win, for no manager has ever come to Stamford Bridge and triumphed over Mourinho in the League, so it would instantly establish the Scot, give him a feather that even Ferguson could not put in his cap.
But Chelsea cannot afford to drop home points with not only the title at stake but competition for Champions League places hotter than ever and, in this context, United still very much in contention. So there are hopes of entertainment at the Bridge this time. Two veterans of Mourinho’s Premier League debut are expected to feature on the Chelsea side in captain John Terry and goalkeeper Petr Cech (Frank Lampard is rehabing an injury) while Moyes could use the 40-year-old Ryan Giggs. But once the action gets under way it will be all about the present.
According to Mourinho, the moment belongs to Eden Hazard. The young Belgian attacker, he says, is "a player who…feels and accepts that a team player is more than a talented player and he has done it without losing his fantastic ability."
It’s true. Mourinho has a history of favoring flair merchants who also work like dogs -- Deco, with whom he won the Champions League and much else at Porto, is the prime example -- and Hazard has been in outstanding form. If United’s suspect defense is to be hurt, he’ll probably be the torturer-in-chief.
It will be interesting to see how Chelsea will approach the game. It’s vital to them to score the first goal but they can’t chase it too adventurously and, under Mourinho’s guidance, are very unlikely to. Some of the big games of this excellent season, such as Manchester City vs. Arsenal, have been riots of attack and counter-attack. This is unlikely to follow that pattern and might mimic the Chelsea of old.
"We are making a transition between the Chelsea of the last decade and Chelsea of the next decade," added Mourinho. "We want stability and not to lose our winning DNA, so we are doing both things at the same time, but we will try to fight for the title until the end."
It could still be very absorbing -- and more memorable than the event of Aug. 15, 2004.
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