Fortune once again smiled on the Blues in Europe but their Portuguese coach got his big decisions right to underline that he remains the master navigator of this elite competitionCOMMENT
By Liam Twomey at Stamford Bridge
No sooner had the ball hit the net than Jose Mourinho was off, sprinting down the touchline to meet his delirious players who had piled on top of each other by the corner flag.
It was Tuesday April 9, 2014 but at first glance it could so easily have been exactly 10 years and one month earlier; the moment the wider world first had its attention seized by the man who would later call himself the Special One, wheeling away from the visiting dugout at Old Trafford after Costinha’s 90-minute equaliser had broken Manchester United hearts and set his Porto side on the road to Champions League glory, eyes defiant and both fists skyward.
Demba Ba’s 87th-minute strike, which shattered Paris Saint-Germain’s resistance and fired the Blues into the Champions League semi-finals on Tuesday night, offered a similar opportunity for catharsis, but Mourinho did not take it. He had no intention of submitting to the emotion of the moment this time. “It was not to celebrate,” he told reporters when it was all over. “It was to tell the players how we have to play the last minutes, because I know that in that moment they want to celebrate, they want to think the game is over.”
Unlike Porto at Old Trafford in 2004, Chelsea only led by away goals and still had eight more minutes to negotiate against desperate opponents with no remaining substitutions and all three of their maligned strikers on the pitch. “The way we were playing we couldn’t carry on winning 2-0,” Mourinho admitted.
“I had to go there because it was the only chance I had to tell Demba, Fernando [Torres] and [Andre] Schurrle what we have to do in the last minutes. But you could see that I can run!”
This was not the Mourinho who sometimes lapses into bravado. It was closer to the Mourinho who can watch one of his players score a goal of the season contender without batting an eyelid, a man able to completely detach himself in order to remain capable of making cold, analytical decisions when time is in short supply. A man made for nights like this one.
The Portuguese is not perfect and has made mistakes since his return to Stamford Bridge – some of which were highlighted by this writer earlier this week – but there is no better navigator of Europe’s elite club competition. His Champions League record of two victories and eight semi-final appearances in 10 full campaigns is phenomenal to the point of peerless.
It helped that PSG were, to an extent, convenient adversaries. Though far more rounded and lavishly resourced than the Napoli side overrun at Stamford Bridge two years ago, their naivety at elite level was exposed with the error which undid their assured start and allowed Schurrle to give life to Chelsea’s hopes.
With a nerveless finish from Branislav Ivanovic’s long throw the German again exhibited the “cold blood” in front of goal which Mourinho had hailed after last month’s hat-trick against Fulham. Suddenly the home crowd believed again, and roars of ‘CHAMPIONS OF EUROPE, WE’VE DONE IT BEFORE’ greeted Chelsea’s every subsequent forward surge.
PSG recovered their composure but the game turned on a surprisingly simple tactical switch. With 66 minutes played Mourinho replaced Frank Lampard with Ba and went more direct. Immediately the pressure on the French giants increased. “He gave problems to PSG that normally they don’t have in their league, because it is a different style,” the Chelsea boss explained afterwards.
The goal eventually came, but not before Edinson Cavani missed a golden chance on the counter-attack that will haunt him for many a night. The Uruguayan had been itching to prove himself centrally in the absence of the injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic but allowed the evening to pass him by.
In the end it was left to Ba, a boyhood PSG fan, to do the damage.
Mourinho’s increasingly public condemnation of his strikers in recent weeks has been well documented, and there is no small irony in the fact that he owes his Champions League semi-final place to the frontman he has trusted least of all this season.
But once again the fates smiled on Chelsea in Europe. Schurrle would not have been on the pitch to score the opener and torment the PSG defence had Eden Hazard not limped off only 18 minutes into the match with a calf problem, while Ba might just as easily have been as ineffective as the emotionally shattered Torres proved when called up from the bench.
But after the ‘Miracle of Munich’, no team knows better than this one how potent a combination of good fortune and iron-clad belief can be in this of all competitions.
With that in mind, Mourinho was spot on when questioned on his preferred opponent in Friday’s semi-final draw in Nyon. “Anything can happen,” he insisted. “A big opponent is waiting for us in the semi-final but it doesn’t matter who. They know we are a team with a special spirit even if we are not in the maximum of our potential.”
Chelsea remain Champions League underdogs, but it is far from difficult or outlandish to conceive of a scenario which ends with Mourinho sprinting across the turf in Lisbon’s Estadio da Luz next month, eyes defiant and both fists skyward, able again to lose himself in the moment.
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