Mourinho has re-invigorated his team so effectively his only rival now is Pellegrini
Chelsea playmaker Eden Hazard gets away from Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron during their Premier League clash at the Britannia.
How would Lionel Messi do on a raw Monday night at Stoke City? Probably not very well if granted only the kind of nominal protection offered Chelsea’s Eden Hazard this week.
It is the question that has become one of the more notorious endorsements of Premier League values, of course, but then it was hard to ignore its relevance to mere football mortals as Jose Mourinho’s team re-affirmed their strength in the two-horse title race with Manchester City.
The coach and his team may still be difficult to love but what they did in the face of some quite barbarous tackling, and in front of an audience which would surely have kept the bear-baiting turnstiles clicking away merrily, surely entitles them to more than grudging respect.
They may not be Real Madrid or Bayern, they may not make the same beautiful patterns and sublime star-bursts of explosive action, and perhaps the odds are still against their surviving an ultimate test in the more rarefied air of the Champions League climax against such quality of opposition.
But, for the moment, they are surely testament to a superb job of work.
They are a team who have been re-made before our eyes. They have been stripped of their weaknesses, invigorated by the demands of a quite exceptional and driven football man.
It is Mourinho’s work at its pragmatic and decisive best. He has gone to every point of frailty in the team he inherited and put in new levels of strength. He has also offered the Premier League, whatever its impact on the European game, the redemption of a compelling fight to the finish with a notably revived City.
Last season City won the title by default: Liverpool collapsed in a way which their manager Brendan Rodgers is still engaging with in considerable desperation, and the Arsenal revival plainly resided in ancient mythology. And Mourinho realised he was two or three players short of the title mark.
This time there has been more of the same from Arsenal, despite the arrival of the insistently ambitious Alexis Sanchez. Manchester United still pursue something resembling their old identity, and there has been some impressive maverick action from the old warrior Sam Allardyce at West Ham, Ronald Koeman at Southampton and Gary Monk at Swansea.
Yet all this might be happening on a separate planet. The issue has rarely been so clear-cut. The question is simply: City, the meandering plutocrats, or the re-crafted Chelsea?
The battle lines could hardly have been drawn more intriguingly because if Mourinho was entitled to walk away from the Britannia Ground last Monday with so much professional satisfaction, his unloved rival Manuel Pellegrini also appears to have regained much of what was beginning to look like threatened authority.
Denied Sergio Aguero – which is to say so much of the natural brilliance, heart and competitive character of his sometimes unfocused team – as well as Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic, Pellegrini not only produced a seamlessly assured stifling of Crystal Palace’s kamikaze ambitions. He also provided evidence that the circumstances of the team may have prodded Yaya Toure out of something suspiciously resembling a bad case of complacency.
Toure, having missed the impressively committed Champions League survival tie in Rome, scored one of those goals which made his inclusion in Zinedine Zidane’s quirkily selected World XI seem much less a matter for raised eyebrows, and David Silva, who came late to the last stand at the Stadio Olimpico, was near to his incisive best.
Here, certainly, we have the potential for half a season of serious investigation into an extremely formidable level of ability.
Overall, the race thus far has been less than compelling, but if the Premier League has too often inflated its glamour, and its deep strength, there can be little doubt that this season’s champions will be able to boast a depth and a competitive stamina to make future failures in Europe not so much a disappointment as a betrayal.
Between them, Chelsea and City surely have a cast of characters to perform on any football stage. Who knows, they may yet find the nerve and the coherence to build beyond what is surely already developed into a private domestic dispute.
It was the demeanour of Chelsea at Stoke that was so impressive.
Hazard’s expression when he was scythed down by full-back Phil Bardsley was of a gunfighter mildly irritated by a saloon bar rowdy. Diego Costa didn’t score but he caused terror whenever he was near the ball, which of course he tends to be at moments of maximum opportunity.
For a little while it seemed that Stoke captain Ryan Shawcross saw some rewards in old-fashioned bullying but he soon understood that if he had picked the right time for the old dark methods he had assuredly selected the wrong victim. He might as well have sought out a hungry wolverine.
Chelsea were superb at all the vital places and Mourinho’s exasperation was comic when a hapless referee ran into the path of a perfectly etched counter-attack.
Cesc Fabregas’ second goal was among his least silky but it spoke of a man who had come to terms with the culture of a Monday night at Stoke in a way which he didn’t always display in the colours of Arsenal. And there was always Nemanja Matic, a midfield functionary of unending relevance to the most crucial action.
Chelsea were champion fighters who let their opponents know, on this occasion as early as the first minute, that they would take their win however it came.
For Pellegrini, the prospect of bringing down Mourinho is plainly delicious.
A second straight title triumph over the man who sneered that he was retreating to Malaga and the shadows of the big time when he cleared his desk at Real Madrid would be a major career notch for a man widely respected for his instinct to build teams with more patience than self-aggrandisement.
Now the duel has become exquisitely balanced.
His tactical inventions in Rome, and when his entire strike force went missing before the Palace game, were accompanied by the encouraging evidence that a group of players had been invited to take a serious look at themselves – and the persistent allegation that they were unable to produce the best of their ability.
In Rome they showed similar qualities to Chelsea at Stoke. Without Aguero and Toure against Serie A’s second team, they grasped the need to dig a little deeper than has been their tendency on such vital occasions.
Fernandinho and Fernando ruled the midfield and long before the end even the will of the superbly committed old pro Francesco Totti had subsided into resignation.
Roma, it is true, are not a great team and are unlikely to threaten Juventus’ hold on the Italian crown.
But in City they found opponents determined to make a significant statement about who they were and where they needed to be. Chelsea said the same thing at Stoke.
On both occasions we had the welcome sight of rather more quality than bluster.