Who knows how ardently Jose Mourinho courted Wayne Rooney during the summer? It certainly looked as though the Portuguese was flashing more than admiring glances at the Manchester United striker, and it seemed the new Chelsea coach’s affections were being returned.
But it also looked like the Blues were taking a risk hoping that Manchester United, conscious of their place among the world’s biggest and most muscular clubs, would agree to sell a leading player to a presumed rival for the Premier League title.
And now that gamble appears costly. In midweek Rooney, looking lean (at least by his own squat standard) and hungry, was celebrating a 200th goal for United, his second on a night when David Moyes’s team began its Champions League campaign with a 4-2 win overBayer Leverkusen at Old Trafford. Meanwhile, Mourinho was brooding in the dugout at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea, with Samuel Eto’o firing blanks like on his debut at Everton four days earlier, lost 2-1 to Basel.
As if to rub in the contrast, Rooney now moves on to a potentially seismic derby against Manchester City at the Etihad, while Mourinho searches for much needed solace amid the less globally riveting environment of a zip-code rivalry (London SW6, in case you’re interested) with Fulham. It matters, of course, but mainly because Mourinho’s recent results have been a bit ordinary.
His return from Real Madrid was first among the reasons so many pundits made Chelsea the big preseason favorite for the domestic honor held by United. And, as time goes by, Mourinho’s side may indeed come to challenge the champions as fiercely as City or anyone else. But the "Special One" has found conditions a lot less favorable than on his previous arrival at Stamford Bridge a decade ago.
Arjen Robben (L) and Damien Duff helped Chelsea win the title in 2005. (Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images).
Then, Chelsea had a young Frank Lampard, an even younger John Terry and a team spine of enviable durability; Petr Cech in goal, Claude Makelele in midfield, Didier Drogba up front and not to mention Arjen Robben, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Joe Cole and Damien Duff in their prime.
In other words, almost all the pieces of the jigsaw were in place. It just took a great coach to put them together. In came Mourinho and the rest is history. The club immediately won its first title for half a century, losing only one of its 38 games (and retained the title in the following season). Now Mourinho’s men have lost two straight and it’s clear that there will be no swaggering procession this time.
The difference is probably not as big as it might have seemed while Mourinho was slinking up the tunnel as the Swiss did their victory dance on Wednesday night. But much of it is due to the character of the squad he has taken over.
In 2004, it had been expertly put together with input from outgoing coach Claudio Ranieri, chief executive Peter Kenyon and at least two of the top agents in the business, all benefiting from the then supreme financial power of owner Roman Abramovich (bear in mind that United was only months away from the leveraged takeover by the Glazer family, Manchester City had yet to be reinvented by Abu Dhabi and Financial Fair Play was just a gleam in the eye of Europe’s soccer bosses).
In 2014 the reality is that Abramovich’s intended empire remains restricted to a stadium 35,000 seats smaller than Old Trafford. Financial Fair Play will also help, increasingly, Arsenal, whose capacity is around 18,000 greater than Chelsea’s.
It doesn’t mean that the Russian will stop spending pretty big, despite his poor return on an English record $75 million for Fernando Torres, who didn’t even get on the field against Basel. It just means his room for maneuver is less. It means he cannot let Mourinho have everything he wants in order to form a squad to the coach’s requirements, rather than his own.
Abramovich never speaks in public, but the view that he admires the pretty passing craved by fans of Spain’s top two clubs and taken to rarefied heights in recent years by Barcelona — has yet to be contradicted. Hence, presumably, the presence at the Bridge of a gaggle of technically gifted playmakers: Oscar, Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and now Willian. Mourinho has never been short of belief in the value of playmaking — as borne out by his two Champions League-winnings Porto (Deco) and Inter Milan (Wes Sneijder) — but he prefers more of a pragmatic approach.
In his previous spell at Chelsea there was Drogba to take and use the long ball, Robben and Duff to counter-attack with pace down the flanks. Chelsea could be direct or circulate the ball, depending on the state of play. Now they are virtually forced to pass, pass, pass like Barcelona which has left Mourinho, whose greatest achievement with Real Madrid was to depose Josep Guardiola’s great team for a season, looking uneasy.
Already it is being noted that Mata, understandably cherished by the crowd, is on the margins of the team and unless results quickly improve there could be murmurings. Chelsea should beat Fulham, who have started patchily, but a tough assignment will then loom a week later at Tottenham.
Derbies don’t come much bigger in England these days than City vs. United. It’s a first for David Moyes and for Manuel Pellegrini but a familiar experience for Rooney, one of whose self-nominated five greatest goals was a bicycle volley past Joe Hart at Old Trafford. His partnership with Robin van Persie looks ominous, and the Dutchman has relevant history too; he got the winner at the Etihad last season.
It might be an idea to back red against blue. Rooney certainly can’t be regretting that fate guided him that way.