Following Chelsea’s momentous victory over Liverpool, there was a on obvious groundswell of popular opinion suggesting that the title was now Manchester City’s to lose.
Yet, beyond the obligatory nod towards Jose Mourinho’s on-pitch tactical superiority, there appears to be little appreciation of the Portuguese’s absolute brilliance in the execution of his game plan in this most crucial of fixtures.
From the build-up, Mourinho appeared to treat this match with total ambivalence, ruling his team out of the title race, indicating he’d field a weakened team and downplaying his side’s chances of any success against the leaders.
To all intents, his focus appeared on the return leg against Atletico Madrid and achieving the Champions League success that eluded him in his first spell at Stamford Bridge.
Yet it’s clear that, almost from the final whistle at the Vicente Calderon, Mourinho was drilling his players relentlessly in the roles they were expected to perform to perfection at Anfield. As one commentator put it, it seemed as if Mourinho had meticulously planned the match down to every five minutes.
This cannot be far from the truth. Firstly, his claim to be forced into fielding a weakened team against Liverpool was a definite red herring; aside from the forced absences of Petr Cech, Eden Hazard, John Terry and Ramires, this team was clearly tailored specifically to Mourinho’s tactical desired.
To be clear, Mourinho’s somewhat defensive set-up was not a result of the players at his disposal. Indeed, the players fielded at Anfield were done so in order to fit his system. Even if fit, Hazard and Samuel Eto’o would perhaps not have featured in any case; the latter has, notoriously, failed to find the net away from Stamford Bridge, whilst the former, Chelsea’s top scorer, has netted half the number of league goals as Luis Suarez.
Similarly, the loss of Jordan Henderson for the host perhaps lost Liverpool some of the dynamism and penetration that has become such a hallmark of their play. It’s clear that it was not Chelsea’s attacking prowess that would decide this crucial match-up, but rather how they dealt with Liverpool’s, much-lauded forward line.
Therefore, Mourinho’s front three of Mohamed Salah, Demba Ba and Andre Schurrle offered the requisite energy, discipline and power to effectively defend from the front. Ba’s half-time breakaway goal was hardly the result of Mourinho’s tactical mastery, but instead reward for his doggedness and relentless pressure from the front, qualities that Torres and Eto’o would not have bought to bear so effectively.
Similarly, in midfield, the absence of Oscar and David Luiz was not in protest as the Special One had insinuated, but rather due to their lack of defensive discipline. In terms of positioning, the trio of Nemanja Matic, John Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard were flawless.
And for this, Mourinho can be amply credited. Not only his tactics, but his personnel selection was perfect for the situation at hand. Mikel and Lampard are highly experienced in Mourinho’s ways, and whilst they offered little attacking threat throughout, they acted as a superbly effective defensive shield.
This is evidenced by the fact that, despite having only 27% possession, the entire Chelsea team gave away only seven fouls all game, none of which were in dangerous positions.
With Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho all dead-ball experts, conceding a direct free-kick close to goal could have proved disastrous, yet for over 90 minutes, they did not get a single opportunity.
It is in defence that many assumed Chelsea would be weakest- without that indomitable warrior Terry and Team of The Year Goalkeeper Petr Cech, surely Suarez, Coutinho and co would romp freely? Having dropped Cahill to the bench, a back five of Schwarzer, Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Kalas and Cole appeared vulnerable.
But, instilled with Mourinho’s painfully exact tactical instructions and supported by a monumental team effort, this defence held firm indeed. Mourinho’s cleverness was most prevalent here, as any defence with 108-cap Ashley Cole and Champions League winning Ivanovic is hardly weak, whilst 20-year-old Kalas has long been tipped as a defensive lynchpin of the future.
Azpilicueta has been an outstanding left-back all season, and continued this on his return to the opposite fullback birth. This was not a back bones back four, but one constructed purely for the single task at hand, preventing the wonderfully dynamic Liverpool attack from getting in behind and wreaking the havoc seen all season.
Beyond the on-field efficiency, it was Mourinho’s actions that were most intriguing. Turning up in his dugout looking, as one Twitter post put it, 'like a University student who couldn’t be bothered with lectures,' he affected an appearance of total boredom at unfolding events, his unshaven, rather shabby features in contrast to the usual impeccable match day look he sports.
There can be no doubt that this was a totally deliberate attempt to reinforce his publicly spouted belief that Chelsea were no longer involved in the title race. On Willian’s clincher he allowed himself a brief spurt of chest beating, yet even this, which ended as abruptly as it started, seemed entirely manufactured as a rebuttal to everyone.
As he stated in the aftermath, his team have now four victories out of four against the two title favourites, perhaps the most compelling evidence of his absolutely unimpeachable big-game credentials - credentials that will face an even sterner test against Atletico Madrid in the semi final second leg tonight.
Achieving victory in this will make Sunday’s performance even sweeter. Whilst they remain two points from the top and would require both Liverpool and Manchester City to drop points over their final fixtures, it would be only a fool who would write off the chances of this most dogged and unbowed of competitors at this late stage.
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