It’s been the most thrilling title race since the Premier League began 21 seasons ago – and it’s in danger of being ruined for everybody except Liverpool.
The man threatening to take responsibility for this act of joy-killing, the man preparing to crush the lingering hopes of fans of his own Chelsea as well as Manchester City, is Jose Mourinho. And yet I, as one of the millions of neutral observers also ready for the champions to be confirmed at Anfield on Sunday – a full two weeks before the scheduled end to the season cannot blame him.
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Mourinho’s job is to win a trophy for the club that brought him back to English soccer last summer and, being convinced that Liverpool under his former junior assistant Brendan Rodgers are not going to blow up on the way to a first title since 1990, he is planning to make a clear priority of the UEFA Champions League.
On Tuesday his team came away from Madrid with a scoreless tie in the first leg of their semifinal against Atletico, who visit Stamford Bridge for the return game on Wednesday, and Mourinho has openly proclaimed an intention to rest players at Anfield, fielding a weakened team in what was previously seen as the last chance to halt Liverpool’s progress.
We had been looking forward to a great game, one conceivably as momentous as Chelsea’s victory at City in February had seemed, for, while defeat would have left Liverpool still favorite with only two fixtures left, a breaking of their sequence of 11 straight wins might have introduced late nerves to the campaign. It might all prove academic now.
For Mourinho had a gripe. He’s had a lot to say lately – the Football Association has charged him with misconduct following a clunkily sarcastic dig at referee Mike Dean and referees’ supervisor Mike Riley after the 2-1 home defeat by Sunderland last weekend - and in Madrid his problem was with the Premier League and Sky television for conspiring, as he saw it, in a schedule that left Chelsea with just two full days to get fit and in tune for Atletico.
Other countries, Mourinho keeps noting, do more to help their Champions League clubs by putting games back a day or two. In fact La Liga duty sends Atletico to Valencia, where they need points to hold off the challenge of city rivals Real and Barcelona at the top of the table, for a kick-off an hour later than Chelsea’s at Anfield. But he still has a point.
He lost goalkeeper Petr Cech to injury in Madrid. Captain John Terry is doubtful for the European tie with an ankle injury, and Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel suspended. It’s a huge game as Chelsea bid to repeat their success of 2012, when, under Roberto di Matteo, they snatched the Champions League from under Bayern’s noses in Munich. If Mourinho feels he must keep those still available fresh by leaving them out at Anfield, who can argue?
Actually, plenty have done so. City and their coach Manuel Pellegrini, who ruefully remembers Mourinho for their time in Spain, must be fuming and the neutral point of view was well put by leading sports writer Paul Hayward, of the Daily Telegraph. After first outlining what he called "the mind-games theory" — soccer’s answer to Machiavelli is fooling us and will unleash his full forces on Liverpool as he did on City — Hayward said that, unless this materialized, "Sunday will show the Mourinho who is willing to pull the sky down on one of the great title races out of self-interest."
That’s the loaded expression. The one at the end. For what can "self-interest" mean but Mourinho’s personal relationship with the Champions League? Yes, he has specialized in winning national titles — in ten seasons to 2011-12 he collected seven of them in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain - but not many coaches have won the Champions League with two clubs.
Mourinho is one and the only others are Ernst Happel (Feyenoord and Hamburg), Ottmar Hitzfeld (Borussia Dortmund and Bayern) and Jupp Heynckes (Real Madrid and Bayern). If Mourinho were to guide Chelsea to the European title as he did Porto and Inter, he would make history and be all the more a Special One, also equaling the late Bob Paisley’s record of three wins, though Paisley’s were all with Liverpool.
To those who would accuse Mourinho of placing this ambition above Chelsea’s domestic interests, however, he might retort by asking them to watch his post-match interviews as winter turned to spring. In these he consistently played down his team’s chances of the national title. He appeared to favor City ahead of Liverpool and it looks like he may have got that bit wrong.
Liverpool have been the best and most consistent. They will take any help Mourinho can give but they might not need it.