Correspondent’s Column: The Spaniard’s display against Tottenham showed his manager might know what he’s doing after all, although his Vertonghen outburst was uncalled for
MOURINHO’S PLAYED A MATA MASTERSTROKE
If Juan Mata were to pick up the phone and call Cristiano Ronaldo, he would probably receive some reassurance.
He would be told that Ronaldo, too, was asked to adapt his game by Jose Mourinho when the Portuguese took over at Real Madrid – but the coach’s demands turned the forward into a better player.
Much has been made of Mata’s absence from the Chelsea team in the early part of the season – and quite rightly given his stunning performances since joining the club in 2011.
But six league titles and two Champions League winners’ medals suggests Mourinho knows what he is doing in the dugout and he may have pulled off a masterstroke with his treatment of Mata.
The 50-year-old was derided for leaving the Spaniard out of his starting XI and publicly calling on the former Valencia playmaker to work harder defensively, while making it clear that Oscar was his first choice for the No.10 role.
Mourinho, though, has always used psychology to motivate even his best players.
On Saturday, he got the response he was looking for as Mata came on at half-time against Tottenham with a point to prove and turned the game and helped earn his side a draw.
After a listless first-half performance in which Chelsea were overrun and fortunate to be trailing only by a single goal, Mata inspired a complete turnaround.
All of Chelsea’s best moves were orchestrated by him and it was no surprise it was he who put John Terry’s equalising goal on a plate from one of his trademark free kicks.
Mata will now start in Tuesday’s crucial Champions League game at Steaua Bucharest with a spring in his step and determined to keep his place in the team.
But while Mourinho may have played a masterstroke with Mata, there was more than a touch of hypocrisy in the Portuguese’s accusations of Jan Vertonghen cheating to get Fernando Torres sent-off.
Mourinho blasted Vertonghen for making the most of his aerial clash with the striker. Of course, no Mourinho player – say Didier Drogba, or Pepe – has ever behaved in such a manner, have they?
And just as bad was his refusal to condemn Torres’ ugly face scratch on Vertonghen earlier in the game, for which he should have been sent-off and could yet receive retrospective punishment.
ARSENAL MUST BELIEVE THEY ARE CONTENDERS
They say the Premier League table starts to take shape after six games of the season – in which case it looks pretty good for Arsenal.
The Gunners are top of the pile having won five matches in a row since their opening day defeat at home to Aston Villa – talk of a crisis has long been forgotten, but now Arsenal must start to believe they can occupy top spot when it really matters next May.
Aaron Ramsey, the country’s most in-form player, was hesitant, almost sheepish, after Saturday’s win at Swansea when asked about Arsenal’s title chances. Even Arsene Wenger went only as far as to say his side were in with a “chance”.
Given the current Premier League landscape Arsenal’s players and management have every right to be bullish about their targets for the campaign ahead, but their reluctance make a verbal statement of intent is the consequence of eight years without a trophy.
They have started the season in the same fashion that they finished the last campaign, and added more star quality with the deadline day signing of Mesut Ozil.
But the question with this Arsenal team will always be how they can cope if and when results slip – is there the same drive and determination in this squad that characterised Wenger’s earlier sides?
In reality, Arsenal have had the easiest fixture list of the top six and are only where they should be. In fact, in comparison with the corresponding fixtures last season they are three points down.
Arsene Wenger’s side are playing the best football in the league, they have a stable squad and a manager who is part of the furniture.
Summer changes at Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City means this season is Arsenal’s best opportunity in years to reclaim a title last won by ‘The Invincibles’ in 2004.
This is not the perfect squad, there will be bumps in the road and questions to be answered – but there is no need for them to adopt an inferiority complex as they strive to claim their first league title in a decade.
SAS: STURRIDGE AND SUAREZ HAVE THE MAKINGS OF A FINE DOUBLE ACT
The fashion across Europe at the moment is to play a lone central striker, but Brendan Rodgers looks like he could be on to something in reviving the old-fashioned double act with Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez.
A trip to bottom-of-the-table Sunderland provided a perfect opportunity to pair them together and it worked a treat, with the speed and movement of both players suited to counter-attacking away from home.
Sturridge scored his fourth league goal of the season before putting two more on a plate for Suarez to convert from close range on his first league game since his 10-match ban for biting Branislav Ivanovic.
After the 3-1 win at the Stadium of Light, upcoming games against Crystal Palace, Newcastle and West Brom will provide further opportunity to develop a potentially devastating partnership ahead of sterner tests.
POCHETTINO PROVING THE DOUBTERS WRONG
The common response last season to Southampton’s decision to sack Nigel Adkins and replace him with Mauro Pochettino was one of either ignorance or brazen xenophobia.
The Argentinian is proving to be an inspired appointment as the Saints sit giddy in fifth in the Premier League table. The dark days of administration and languishing in League One long forgotten.
They have been aided so far by a kind fixture list – last week’s winning trip to Anfield aside – but the signs of progress are undeniable, especially when you remember their ragged defending at the start of last season.
Southampton have already kept four clean sheets and conceded just two league goals this term. Pochettino is building the right base to take Southampton to the next level, to turn attention from survival to challenging for a European place.