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Apr 092014

Last wednesday night, a bewildered and dispirited Chelsea side left Le Parc des Princes on the back of a 1-3 loss in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal tie with Paris Saint-Germain.  Despite labeling his side as underdogs in his pre-match press conference, José Mourinho’s reaction to Javier Pastore’s late goal belied his true feelings.  José told Sky Sports, “You say sloppy, I say ridiculous.”  He further lamented in his post-match comments: “We did the most difficult things very well, but we couldn’t take half-chances and we made individual defensive mistakes.”  However, the Portuguese tactician was reluctant to concede defeat with a full 90 minutes left to play: “We are not out, and we will try to turn it around.”  Many were slow to count Chelsea out, citing Mourinho’s (and Chelsea’s) impressive record in the Champions League.  José has an immaculate Champions League quarterfinals record, reaching the semi-finals 8 times out of 8 attempts, and Chelsea has advanced to the semi-finals of the competition 7 times in the last 11 years.

That being said, there were still many people, some fans of Chelsea included, who doubted that advancing to the semifinal was possible, and for good reason.  PSG have one of the most deadly attacks in Europe, with or without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was unable to play the return leg at Stamford Bridge after he injured his hamstring in Paris.  This meant that Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani would spearhead the trident of Laurent Blanc’s PSG, with Argentinian Ezequiel Lavezzi and Brazilian Lucas Moura joining him in an all-South American strike force.  Defending against them would clearly be a daunting task, especially after Chelsea’s defense – the best in the Champions League – gave up 3 goals in their first leg.  More daunting still, is that despite being playing out of position in wider areas this season, Cavani has scored 22 goals in 37 matches for the Ligue 1 champions.  Coming into tonight’s match, Chelsea’s strikers had scored a total of 25 goals in all competitions.

Despite PSG’s dangerous attack, José Mourinho calmly stated in yesterday’s press conference that Chelsea would score more goals than their visitors and progress to the semifinals.  Rarely does a manager write-off his own team, so it was unsurprising to hear the Portuguese express his confidence, but there was an assuredness in his statement – an assuredness that inspires players.  Mourinho’s player-management skills, particularly during his tenure at Chelsea, have been praised by players and coaches alike who cite his ability to motivate his team for big matches.  His record speaks for itself, especially, when Chelsea plays at home.  His commitment to the game is undeniable.  Samuel Eto’o told BeinSport, “He becomes someone else in the build-up to matches.  Like any human being, he sometimes loses his mind.”  The passion of the Portuguese coach cannot be disputed.  And while some find his behavior “silly,” as described by Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, it serves to motivate his players to do great things.

The collective belief in success shared by Mourinho’s Chelsea was perhaps best embodied by their captain, John Terry.  In the second half, while Chelsea was pushing for a second goal, Terry looked to have seriously hurt his ankle, and was hobbling around in pain.  At one point, he looked over at the Chelsea bench and the cameras followed his gaze.  He saw what we saw: a resolute Mourinho, animated and engaged in motivating his team to keep going forward.  The cameras cut back to the action, and in the next moment, John Terry threw himself to the ground in order to block a shot – which he did, successfully.  Congratulating his captain, Gary Cahill helped him to his feet, and shouted something that could only have been, “Stay on.  We need you.”  It has been a difficult past couple of weeks for the Chelsea talisman, during which he scored an own goal in a 0-1 loss to Crystal Palace, and whose poor clearance assisted Ezequiel Lavezzi’s goal for PSG in the first leg of their quarterfinal tie.  It is a testament to Mourinho’s player-management and ability to instill confidence in his players that John Terry was able to bounce back so quickly and put in a solid performance today.  After their victory today, Mourinho described his defenders as “brilliant” in his post-match comments, and not for the first time.

Mourinho’s ability to get the best performance out of his players in big matches was best personified by the performances of André Schürrle, Demba Ba and David Luiz.

Schürrle, who came on in the 18th minute for an injured Eden Hazard, seemed to be particularly motivated to prove his value.  His goal, in the 32nd minute, was a result of his being the most motivated to get on the end of a throw-in.  In the replays of the goal, one can see that he is the first to anticipate the flight of the ball, and the first to react when it fell.  His introduction to the game was infectious and immediately raised the level of play from a Chelsea standpoint.  When he scored, there was a tangible increase in belief, both by the players and by the fans inside the ground.  When Schürrle struck the crossbar minutes after the start of the second half, there was a real sense that Chelsea was pushing its agenda, and that there would soon be another goal scored.  One of few players who did not shine in Chelsea’s comfortable weekend win against Stoke, only featuring for 59 minutes, André Schürrle played like a man possessed, repaying his manager’s belief in him.

Demba Ba, whose opportunities to shine have been few and far between, also repaid his manager’s faith by netting the winning goal three minutes from time.  Ba replaced Frank Lampard, and, with the inclusion of Fernando Torres, was one of three strikers to have graced the pitch for the Blues come the final whistle.  To his credit, Demba Ba’s movement off the ball and eagerness to challenge for headers was a clear example of his commitment to the team and his manager.  When he scored, his elation matched that of the entire home crowd, as Stamford Bridge erupted.  And despite having very few chances to do so this season, Demba Ba showed his quality.  Playing just 24 minutes over the two legs, the Senegalese striker scored an extremely important goal – something neither Ibrahimovic nor Cavani had done.

David Luiz, often criticized for his lackadaisical defending and poor decision-making, had a rather lackluster performance in the first leg in Paris.  He was an altogether different player tonight.  WhoScored rated him as Chelsea’s man of the match, making 5 tackles, winning all of his headed duels, and providing the assist for André Schürrle’s crucial first half goal.  In fact, it is hard to recall a 50/50 challenge from tonight’s match that David Luiz did not win.

The successes of his players cannot be solely attributed to the excellent player-management of José Mourinho, but it certainly plays a big part.  When Demba Ba scored the winning goal, Mourinho sprinted up the touchline, headed directly for the pile of his celebrating players, and immediately pulled Torres off – according to him – in order to give his player instructions.  Some may say this was a method of time-wasting, or that Mourinho simply wanted to share in the glory of his team’s success, but one cannot deny how powerful a moment it was.  Ever the tactician, José was barking orders from the corner flag even while his team, and every Chelsea fan in the ground, were caught up in a moment of unbridled joy.  Ever the player-manager, Mourinho was not going to allow his team’s momentary success to blind them to the task at hand.

José Mourinho has his critics.  Some say he is inordinately passionate, or that he plays mind-games, or that he is a sore loser.  However, his consistent success is the result of a combination of his nearly unparalleled tactical aptitude for the game and his ability to get the very best out of his players – an ability he showcased tonight.


Senegalese-American journalism student. Fan of political science & international relations. Strong passion for writing about and playing the beautiful game. Bilingual. Recovering Drogbaholic. Licensed Youth Coach. I call it football, futbol and soccer. Follow me on twitter: More of my writings:

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