Van Gaal faces sternest test against former pupil Mourinho
Whisper it, but might there be just the teeniest chance that Jose Mourinho is telling the truth? That the Chelsea coach really does have a striker crisis ahead of the visit to Manchester United for the huge Barclays Premier League match of the weekend (live, Sunday, 12 p.m. ET)?
Mourinho does, after all, have a brief history of abandoning his default tactic of Machiavellian gamesmanship and just telling it like it is. Towards the end of last season, with most of us believing there was still a three-horse race involving Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, he ruled his own team out and, sure enough, it turned out to be Liverpool who ran City closest for the title.
Chelsea did excellent business in the summer transfer market, however -- senior executive Marina Granovskaia is getting a lot of praise for such signings as Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas -- and Mourinho went into this season exuding confidence in his collection of players. They haven't let him down. They lead the Premier League, having dropped only two points from a possible 24.
City lie five behind. And a further five separate Chelsea from sixth-placed Manchester United, whose defense continues to inspire little confidence as new coach Louis van Gaal eats away the days. The Dutchman gave warning that it might take three months for the benefits of his methods to emerge; he said this had been the pattern at Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
We're now down to three weeks and still United don't seem capable of bossing the sort of team a top-four side would expect to. West Bromwich Albion, for example, who performed well under Alan Irvine, were understandably disappointed only to tie with van Gaal's men, who trailed 2-1 until Daley Blind struck late.
Now comes the biggest test since van Gaal took over. An even bigger test, possibly, than in the derby at City a week later, for Chelsea look truly like a great force in the making, capable, with the tactical smartness that is Mourinho's greatest strength, of both blunting United's extremely potent attack -- Old Trafford has no complaints about the offensive work of Angel Di Maria in particular -- and penetrating that vulnerable backline.
But what about Chelsea's strikers? All we hear is that they aren't fit. And yet few believe Diego Costa, who has taken the Premier League by storm since his arrival from Atletico Madrid, won't take part on Sunday.
He's obviously the one United will fear most and van Gaal, who knows Mourinho better than anyone -- indeed helped to educate him at Barcelona -- will be planning to face Costa, even though Mourinho has been playing down the Brazil-born striker's chances of action ever since he was used, against Mourinho's wishes, by Spain in the recent internationals.
He missed the Champions League canter against Maribor in midweek. Loic Remy started, but went off after 15 minutes with a groin problem, giving a more prolonged outing than had been envisaged for the 36-year-old Didier Drogba. So Drogba should be ready for at least an hour at Old Trafford. Remy has been ruled out, but there's a further option in Andre Schurrle, fit again after a virus.
But the suspicion remains that Costa, whose own virus problem has been complicating the management of his hamstring tightness -- yes, the same condition that caused almost daily bulletins to be issued in the build-up to the Champions League final in May, then the World Cup, and now threatens to become a dominant sub-plot of the English game -- will play some part. Even on the bench, his presence could be influential.
Who'd have thought it? The egos of van Gaal and Mourinho are about to clash - and we're talking about a mere player!
It's only the second confrontation between the erstwhile master and pupil, and young Mourinho, having won the first when his Inter Milan team beat Van Gaal's Bayern in the 2010 Champions League final, must be as confident as ever, for back at Chelsea he now finds himself with a squad strong in every position.
The club really has worked astutely off the field and, Granovskaia apart -- she, a 39-year-old of Canadian and Russian nationality, has become acknowledged as owner Roman Abramovich's most influential executive -- credit must go to the youth department for developing the 17-year-old attacker Dom Solanke. He made an impressive debut against Maribor and will stay in the squad for Old Trafford.
Chelsea have adjusted to the era of Financial Fair Play; it's as if they have upped their game. United, by contrast, with their much bigger stadium and vast revenue, can spend almost what they like but appear to lack a pattern, buying forwards and attacking midfielders galore -- Di Maria apart, Ander Herrera and Radamel Falcao have arrived this season -- while the fans wait in hope of some defensive resilience.
Blind, van Gaal's only defensive midfielder, is shouldering quite a burden in this respect. He got away with a bit of tactical fouling at West Brom -- and came up with that sweet goal -- but a visit by Chelsea will be a different matter and so van Gaal may feel he has to change his approach, go against his own nature by curbing United's traditional spirit of adventure. Just for one game.
Funny, isn't it? Last season, under David Moyes, United drew 0-0 with Chelsea at Old Trafford -- and a few months later Moyes was sacked. Yet many United fans would gladly settle for such an outcome this weekend. Whether Costa plays or not.