Chelsea risk playing mind games ahead of Manchester City clash

LONDON —  

It’s the most familiar trick in the book — and has been since Sir Alex Ferguson came south from Scotland to join the Premier League (then First Division) fray in 1986. Circle the wagons, create a siege mentality, act like the world is against your club. The theory is that it fires up the players, binds them together and makes them fight like cornered animals and, if that’s not enough metaphors for you, try this: Jose Mourinho is the Machiavellian master of mind games.

Actually, we don’t know if the "Special One" is indulging in a psychological ploy this time. If he is, it’s certainly not working. To judge from confirmation by the Football Association that Diego Costa will serve a three-match suspension for a stamp on Liverpool’s Emre Can, beginning with the big game against Manchester City at Stamford Bridge this weekend (live, Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET).

Mourinho might be manifesting more paranoia than tactical craft now, that he might truly have come to believe his Chelsea are the victims of a "campaign” by pundits that (though he has been careful not to spell this out) has affected decisions by referees to Chelsea’s disadvantage. As he said after Cesc Fabregas had been incorrectly yellow-carded by Anthony Taylor for diving in the penalty area at Southampton a month ago — replays showed the midfielder was impeded by young defender Matt Targett — he had worked in countries where ”tomorrow in the sports papers it would be a front-page scandal, because it is a scandal’.’

Mourinho was charged by the FA over that — and this week fined $37,500 — but he has continued to allege that observers led by Sky Sports analyst and former Liverpool and midfielder Jamie Redknapp are victimizing his club. The evidence, however, is thin almost to the point of invisibility. To take the question of diving as an example, yes, Fabregas was badly treated by the referee on the day, but on another winter day — Dec. 13, to be precise — in front of another referee, Gary Cahill had blatantly dived in an attempt to earn a penalty against Hull City and yet not been shown a second yellow card by Chris Foy, who later (and rightly) reduced Chelsea’s opposition to 10 men by giving a straight red to Tom Huddlestone for a horrid foul on Felipe Luis.

Diego incurred one of his frequent cards in that game — a late yellow — and it is the combative adopted Spaniard who is the subject of Mourinho’s latest cause. Given a swift and, it seemed to most witnesses, judicious FA ban of three matches for what he did to Can, unseen by overworked referee Michael Oliver during a feisty but enthralling Capital One League Cup semifinal second leg on Tuesday, Diego launched an appeal emphatically backed by Mourinho and the club, who argued that his foot had come down on the prone and defenseless Turk’s ankle by accident.

While we waited for the appeal outcome — admirably, the FA dealt with it in a matter of hours — an interesting opinion was tweeted by Redknapp’s Sky Sports colleague Gary Neville to the effect that Diego might "get off his charge” on the grounds that "he doesn’t look at the player” [while falling on him]. As Neville’s old boss might remark, "Dearie me!” Anyway, that criterion would have rendered Costa guilty of another stamp the same night on Martin Skrtel, at whose upper foot Diego is looking straight as he lands on it, now outraging the Slovakian defender and several teammates. The FA produced no charge in that case. But they could have rightfully done so. As it goes, Costa was not treated with extreme harshess, as the club seemed to imply, with many of their noisier fans predictably agreeing on the social media.

OUT OF THIS WORLD

What a shame Mourinho and Chelsea — who put no one forward for the routine eve-of-game media briefing, risking Premier League sanction — should with such nonsense divert our attention from what could be one of the most significant events of the season. They lead the Premier League and, after ousting Liverpool, can contemplate a Wembley final. And it’s not as if Manchester City will be at full strength either.

The visitors will be without star midfielder Yaya Toure, who is still on duty with the Côte d’Ivoire at the African Cup of Nations along with new signing Wilfred Bony. Yaya’s just as much a match-winner as Costa and he’s proved it in two successful league title campaigns with City. Costa could be just as important to Chelsea this time round — few players have made such an immediate impact on the Premier League since its inception 22 years ago — and that’s why the club tried vainly to have him made available.

"It’s an opportunity for other players to show what they can do," Manuel Pellegrini told reporters on Friday. "Yaya is a very important player for us. We played without Yaya and we qualified against Bayern Munich and against Roma in the Champions League so he is a very important player and it is exactly the same with Diego Costa but I don’t think that both teams depend just on those players."

Be that as it may, Fabregas — the most creative player in the entire Premier League, according to assists statistics — is almost certain to miss out with a hamstring problem. This could tip the balance and encourage Chelsea’s only serious challengers for the title to go for all three points at Stamford Bridge, this cutting the deficit to just two. Pellegrini’s side, after all, have a striker with at least as impressive a career scoring rate as Costa in Sergio Aguero. This season, Costa has 17 goals in 19 Premier League appearances. Aguero has 14 in 17 — plus five in the UEFA Champions League, in which Costa has yet to get off the mark since leaving Atletico Madrid.

But now we will not see Costa at the big event. It’s a pity for neutrals, even more so for Chelsea. But they have only Costa to blame and it might be as well for Mourinho, at least privately, to acknowledge that. Otherwise, he risks playing mind games with himself.