Seeds of doubt starting to sprout in Mourinho's second Chelsea term
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Toward the end of last season, as it became increasingly clear that Jose Mourinho would be leaving Real Madrid, Chelsea fans began chanting his name. He was seen as the messiah, the coach whose second coming would end the chaos around Chelsea and restore them to the kind of success they enjoyed in his first spell at the club. That may yet happen, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that glory is not inevitable.
Mourinho has been in charge for six games now and has won two, drawn two and lost two. The defeat to Basel on Wednesday was Chelsea's first at home in the group stage of the Champions League for a fortnight shy of 10 years, while this has been Chelsea's worst start to a league season since Roman Abramovich took charge of the club in 2003. So far, rather than suggesting possible triumphs to come, Mourinho's return has raised old ghosts.
Wednesday was six years to the day since Chelsea drew at home to Rosenborg in the final game of Mourinho's first spell. At the time, the result felt almost incidental, so obviously sour had the relationship between Mourinho and Abramovich become. The day before the game, Mourinho had descended into bizarre metaphor to lament the club's refusal to sign the players he wanted. "If you have no eggs, you have no omelette," he said that night. "And it depends upon the quality of the eggs. In the supermarket you have Class One, Class Two and Class Three eggs. Some are more expensive than others, and some give you better omelettes. So when the Class One eggs are in Waitrose [a high-end grocery store] and you cannot go there, you have a problem."
Before Wednesday's game, Mourinho had made reference to that metaphor, saying he had a team of "young eggs", a comparison that not merely makes little sense, but actually simply isn't true. This might not be the exact team Mourinho would have put together, but it is the side that Rafa Benitez led to the Europa League title last season, with the addition of Willian, Samuel Eto'o, Kevin De Bruyne and Marco van Ginkel.
Afterwards, he pursued the theme, complaining about his side's lack of maturity. "The team is not a team with the personality to face the difficult moments of the game," Mourinho said. "The team started with accepting the responsibility of playing -- they pressed the opponent, played with the ball and tried to create, but when first negative moment arrives with the equalizer, the team shakes a little bit. The only thing you can do is to work."
It's true that Chelsea seemed to quake having conceded but to suggest this side is youthful and inexperienced is disingenuous even by Mourinho's standards. The "young eggs" in his starting eleven included eight Champions League winners; between them they had won 596 international caps and they had an average age of 28. The maturity issue is a classic Mourinho deflection: if this team is not performing as well as last season it is because Mourinho is trying to impose a different style of play -- one, perhaps, that does not suit the players he has available.
So far, the biggest casualty has been Juan Mata. Seemingly distrusted, his form has waned and his arrival against Basel actually made Chelsea less effective as Oscar was forced out to the right. Samuel Eto'o was ineffective, which may be a temporary loss of form or may be terminal: after all, he is 32 and has spent two years playing at a lower level in Russia, where, as Mourinho acknowledged, "maybe you are ... not for the right reasons and you lose your hunger, you lose your appetite." Willian, making his debut, also looked out of shape. Only Oscar really threatened, opening the scoring on the stroke of half-time with a clever run and smart shot back across goal, then striking the bar with a dipping curler and seeing a similar effort deflected just wide.
Mourinho was probably right to point out that Chelsea had had enough chances to wrap the game up before Basel leveled -- a team goal begun by Behrang Safari's surge from the left that passed through a flick from Matias Delgado and a first-time pass from Marco Streller before the excellent Mohamed Salah swept the ball home -- but it was never entirely convincing. Mourinho then blamed "mistakes by three players" for allowing Streller to head in a left-wing corner with nine minutes remaining.
Realistically, of course, this is just one defeat -- admittedly one that follows immediately from another one, with two draws before that -- and one in which Chelsea could feel slightly unfortunate. But there are two major sources of concern: firstly Chelsea's lack of cutting edge, and secondly Mourinho himself. In the past, he has been a shock worker, somebody who arrived, did a job and rapidly departed, leaving everybody emotionally spent. He was "the special one", a swaggerer who infused everybody with his self-belief. English football hasn't seen him like this before, diminished and begging for time.
It may be that by the end of the season the past three weeks will seem a minor blip on the road to glory; there has been no loss of faith yet. But what is clear is that, if there is success, it will not come easily. The first doubts are beginning to sprout.