By Liam Twomey at Stamford Bridge
Jose Mourinho has become no stranger to vindication over his long and illustrious career, but this week has still been sweeter than most.
The sale of Juan Mata to Manchester United highlighted both a rare and encouraging unity of purpose at Chelsea and the strength of the manager’s vision for the future; Sunday’s narrow but convincing victory over Stoke City provided further evidence that his vision is well-founded.
In this of all weeks, Oscar’s performance was always going to carry greater significance. Mata’s departure merely confirmed what has been crystal clear for some time: the prodigious Brazilian is the poster boy, engine room and inspiration of Mourinho’s Chelsea 2.0, the creative visionary who can be relied upon to get his hands dirty. Against Stoke he was nothing short of brilliant.
Of course, that stupendous 27th-minute free-kick lingers in the mind. Asmir Begovic took the smallest of steps to his left and had no cause to expect it to prove fatal.
The consistently impressive Bosnian could then only watch in wonder as the ball flew in a beautiful arc into his top corner. Perhaps, as he despondently fished the ball out of his net, he thought of the great Gianluigi Buffon – another goalkeeper who knows all too well of Oscar’s capacity for genius.
But that moment was merely the pinnacle of the Brazilian’s achievements. Out of possession he hassled, harried and tackled Stoke into trouble. On the ball he dribbled, passed, probed and shot with remarkable assurance, constantly testing Begovic and his unfortunate defenders. On such days it is more than startling to remember he is only 22. It is frightening.
Another first-half strike clattered off the post, another pass enabled Andre Schurrle to do the same after the interval and Eden Hazard repeatedly capitalised on his No.11’s snappy passing to isolate and embarrass Geoff Cameron and Erik Pieters. In the end Chelsea’s margin of victory was narrow, but not for his want of trying.
Mourinho’s instructions were evident throughout. His team pressed Stoke ferociously from the first minute, closing off passing avenues and forcing the play back to Begovic, whose only recourse was a hopeful punt towards Peter Crouch. Such a strategy is usually effective but the close attentions of giant new boy Nemanja Matic ensured the Englishman’s influence was minimal.
Matic, making his first start for Chelsea almost three years, two transfers and over £40 million spent cash after he last cast his considerable shadow on the Stamford Bridge pitch, provided the base for the Blues' dominance. His physical presence cowed almost all who ventured near him, his reading of the game was near flawless and his unfussy passing drove Mourinho’s men forward.
Chelsea’s two star men on the day could not be more different – Oscar, now 22 but still resembling a 14-year-old grumbling about parental curfews when replaced by Willian with 10 minutes to go, and Matic, the serene 6ft 4in behemoth with a deceptively subtle touch – but the performances of both offered compelling evidence that we are now very close to seeing a fully-fledged Mourinho team.
For Chelsea fans, visions of Mata returning to torment his former club will linger for a while yet. But they can take solace in the knowledge that, on recent evidence, they will not miss him.