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Mourinho faces fresh Chelsea challenge

A NEW TASK
Jose Mourinho faces a new challenge with a young Chelsea squad.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.

SPECIAL MOMENTS

Take a look back at Jose Mourinho's successful career here.

There is indeed something a bit special about the self-styled Special One.

Following Chelsea’s 2-0 win over AC Milan in an International Champions Cup semifinal at the MetLife Stadium here on Sunday, a great many fans crowded the glass-encased press conference room amid the sprawling VIP area. They showed little interest in Milan’s head coach, Massimiliano Allegri. He was, at best, an interloper delaying the main act.

When the Italian was finally through, the anticipation built. They all know who was next.

Every time a security guard or someone else who wasn’t Jose Mourinho pushed through the double doors to the space, an audible groan escaped the hundreds of disappointed mouths. It became a running joke after a while, the groans becoming exaggerated and followed by boos.

And then, at last, he materialized. Smaller than you would expect. Greyer than you remembered him. Three seasons each with Inter Milan and Real Madrid will do that to you.

Applause. Singing of his name. Banging on the glass. A buzz. And a crackle in the air.

But in this, his second spell as Chelsea manager after leading them to their first Premier League title in 50 years in 2005 and then resigning when his ego and that of the club’s oligarch owner could no longer be reconciled, he’ll have to be a different kind of special.

“My first team at Chelsea was a team with an age median that was quite high and with players that were in the best moment of their career,” Mourinho said, when asked by FOX Sports how the job was different this time around. “It was a team that we knew was ready. It just needed some improvements. It was ready to attack any team in every competition and think more about the present and less about the future.”

Indeed, from 2004 through 2007, Mourinho played with a team of well-drilled veterans mostly brought in by his predecessors. Now, upon his return, most of those veterans have only just left the club while a handful still linger but can no longer be relied on full-time. So there is some rebuilding to be done.

“This team is a very young team,” Mourinho continued. “If we take [backup goalkeeper Mark] Schwarzer with 40 years old out, the age range goes very, very, very, very low. We have lots of kids of 21, 22, 23 that is going to get better year after year after year. I’m not saying we don’t want to win now because that’s the nature of this club and that’s my own nature and that’s what I want the place to feel – always try to win and don’t wait for tomorrow if you can win today.

“But the reality is that my job is different because I have a team of very young people and I’m preparing them not just for this year but I’m preparing them for the future. It’s a project for the future.”

Throughout Sunday’s game, Mourinho leaned on the boarding in front of his dugout, constantly coaching from up close in a way he hasn’t had to do in quite some time. Inter and Real, his employers in recent years, were also teams that were ready to compete by the time he arrived. But this job requires a different kind of coach.

Once upon a time, Mourinho invented himself. He parlayed a brief and forgettable professional career into a job as translator for some of the world’s most reputable coaches. And then he set about studying them. As Gerard van der Lem, the top assistant of Louis van Gaal at Barcelona, who was the first manager to put Mourinho on his coaching staff in the late ‘90s, recently recalled to a Dutch magazine, “He didn’t know anything about football.” So Mourinho watched. And learned; siphoning off knowledge and knowhow until he could eclipse them all.

Now, he’ll have to reinvent himself at the club where he became a great, where he grew to be special – even if he already pronounced himself to be that in his first press conference there almost a decade ago.

The material is at hand. Young technicians Eden Hazard, Oscar, Juan Mata, Marco van Ginkel and Kevin De Bruyne are potential greats, as they demonstrated anew on Sunday. But they’ll require a man of patience to lead them. A man of care and trust. Not the provocateur and loudmouth and lightning rod that Mourinho was in his last spell at Chelsea. That he was at Inter and Real.

That would be his real accomplishment: setting himself aside. Pulling that off, reimagining the man he is for the sake of his young charges, would make him truly special.

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