Although the Portuguese has one eye on Atletico Madrid and is set to play a weakened XI against Liverpool, his Manchester City blueprint is the perfect strategy to beat the Reds
By Ewan Roberts
Sunderland have a lot for which to answer. The Premier League had been set for the tightest, most unpredictable title battle in recent years until Gus Poyet’s men thwarted both Manchester City and Chelsea in the space of days to leave Liverpool in control at the summit of the table.
Before then, the Blues’ trip to Anfield had been billed as the ultimate title decider, swirling with sub-plots and excitement: the league’s best defence against the deadliest attack in the division; the one-time apprentice against the master. But now Sunday’s spectacle is threatening to become the latest sideshow in Jose Mourinho’s catalogue of controversies.
The Portuguese, already facing an FA rap, is back in full-on sulk mode and threatening to play the reserves against Liverpool – partly to keep his players fresh for the Champions League, partly as a reaction to recent fixture scheduling.
“I know what I would do,” said Mourinho after drawing with Atletico Madrid in midweek. “I would play the players who are not going to play on Wednesday. My priority is the Champions League.” That stance was reiterated again in his pre-match press conference and now comes with the support of owner Roman Abramovich.
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Yet the idea of Mourinho turning up to Anfield and waving the white flag betrays his ceaseless, irrepressible desire to win. Defeat would put the title mathematically beyond the Blues reach and they will not meekly surrender their slim hopes. The Portuguese will likely follow through on his plan to play a weakened team but that does not mean that it would not be a side still capable of winning.
There are certain parallels with his final season with Real Madrid; with los Blancos 13 points adrift of Barcelona in a Primera Division title race that had long since been over, Mourinho faced a trip to rivals Atletico ahead of the second leg of a Champions League semi-final against Borussia Dortmund, with the Germans already leading 4-1.
With the league no longer a priority, just two outfield players who started at the Estadio Vicente Calderon would do so again three days later against BVB and both Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos were entirely omitted from the matchday squad.
Yet Madrid emerged 2-1 victors. It was not a particularly thrilling win – with Madrid registering their second fewest number of shots (six) in any single league match that season – but it bore all the hallmarks of a typical Mourinho away performance. The team were compact, solid and effective, even if the quality of the personnel was diluted.
The 141 duels in which Madrid engaged that day was their most in a single league game all season, while their 28 tackles were bettered only by the home clash with Atletico (29) earlier in the campaign.
Mourinho might have weakened his side but the players’ desire was as fierce as ever and each would have been eyeing a spot in the starting XI to face Dortmund. Similarly, Chelsea’s players will know that a good performance against Liverpool could earn a European start in midweek.
Moreorover, Atletico’s players had been burdened by the prospect and pressure of finally finishing above their local rivals – a win then would have moved them level on points – and Brendan Rodgers’s charges are acutely aware of their own 24-year wait to lift the Premier League title. That has bred a nervousness that has been palpable when both Man City and Norwich City found second goals, and gears, against the Reds recently.
Thus, Chelsea – and Mourinho – feel almost uniquely placed to halt the Liverpool juggernaut. There are few managers capable of cranking up and applying pressure quite like the Portuguese and few sides in the division built so specifically to contain opponents, react and counter – even if that comes at the expense of more methodical, penetrative possession, their undoing against sides who have sat deep themselves.
The circumstances that surround Sunday’s encounter, with Mourinho just a few steps away from veering towards the perceived victimisation that saw him hold his wrists aloft as though handcuffed while in charge of Inter, seems to get the best out of his sides. It is one of the coach’s great strengths, erecting a wall around his players, culturing a siege mentality.
Expectations are lowered, the players are free to get on with the task at hand and, for all Mourinho’s conjecture, even a reserve side would boast hugely talented and expensive players – as Rodgers himself noted.
One such player, January signing Nemanja Matic, who is ineligible against Atleti having played in the Champions League with Benfica, could be the key to victory against Liverpool, just as he was when Chelsea ended Manchester City’s 100 per cent record at the Etihad Stadium and stopped them from scoring at home for the first time since November 2010.
Just days earlier Mourinho had lashed out at West Ham and manager Sam Allardyce for playing “football from the 19th Century” and, at the Etihad, his side gave a wonderful display of defending at its most positive.
The back line was disciplined and organised, absorbing and deflecting pressure, while Matic and David Luiz sat in front of the back four offering protection and penetration. The Serb dominated the midfield, engaging in 22 duels and winning possession back via a tackle or interception on six occasions (the most of any Chelsea player that day). He clogged up the centre of the pitch, depriving David Silva the space in which he thrives, and even got forward, rattling the crossbar from range.
It is worth noting, too, that Raheem Sterling has been moved centrally in recent weeks. It is a subtle tweak that has surprised teams and paid enormous dividends, with the Jamaican-born attacker thriving in the hole, but he will be afforded far less time and space when up against Matic and will need to show more than his ferocious pace against a player so adept at shutting down space.
Rodgers will also be well aware that the last visiting team to win at Anfield, Southampton, played with the same shape, 4-2-3-1, and applied the same aggressive pressing strategy that can be expected from Chelsea.
Mourinho did not merely park the bus at the Etihad, though, and Chelsea also countered against City with a bubbling, surging energy. There, it was Eden Hazard who shone on the break; at Anfield, the west Londoners must look to Mohamed Salah.
The Egyptian, ineligible in the Champions League and certain to start on Sunday, has begun to show the coruscating form that had ripped Chelsea apart while in a Basel shirt. He completed an incredible nine dribbles against Swansea and spurned enough chances to have bagged a hat-trick, as well as notching a goal and an assist against Stoke City. His pace will be key, especially against a Liverpool defence that can be vulnerable, especially when on the turn.
And so the stage is set for another Mourinho masterclass, and the fates seem to have aligned just perfectly for The Grumpy One to spoil a whole host of parties. He can halt Liverpool’s title challenge, get one over his protege, and, should he overcome Atletico, perhaps even thwart former club Madrid’s hunt for La Decima should they too make the Champions League final. Mourinho wouldn’t have it any other way.
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