Mourinho under pressure to end reputation as a serial semi-finalist
Chelsea manager went out in last four of Champions League in past three seasons
José Mourinho: Chelsea’s manager has made no secret of the fact he has set his heart on winning the competition for a third time with a third club. Photograph: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
Fernando Torres was affectionately mobbed by a small group of Atletico fans when he arrived at Madrid airport with the Chelsea squad yesterday afternoon. He remains a hero here, six years on from his departure, status undimmed by his marginalising at Chelsea.
There is perhaps some dramatic irony, then, that in Samuel Eto’o’s absence Torres may well end up leading Chelsea’s attack at the Vicente Calderon stadium in a tie that, for Mourinho at least, has a little more than simply the endgame to Chelsea’s season riding on it.
It is one of football’s truisms that nobody remembers a semi-finalist. A serial semifinalist is a different matter and Mourinho’s recent history in the Champions League has been mentioned a few times in the build-up to the first leg of Chelsea’s semi against Atletico. Like it or not, tonight Mourinho will break Sir Alex Ferguson’s record for Champions League semi-finals, raising his personal tally to eight.
It is a record he would gladly do without, and which still rankles in parts: “Against Liverpool [in 2005] we lost with a goal that wasn’t a goal. But that is part of football,” Mourinho couldn’t resist pointing out when questioned on his record, and he has made no secret of the fact he has set his heart on winning the competition for a third time with a third club.
In spite of which, the semis have just kept on coming, with defeats by Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in the past three seasons with Real Madrid.
For almost any other manager, a place in the Champions League semi-finals and a late-stage title challenge would be a promising return for a first season in charge of a lopsided squad.
As has been relentlessly pointed out Demba Ba, an aged Eto’o and a shop-soiled Torres is not a top-four-in-Europe forward line, but Mourinho has patched up his team’s flaws so well even now Chelsea remain a handful of wins away from pulling off a memorable domestic and Champions League double heist. Mourinho, though, only really makes sense when he wins. This is his raison d’etre. And hence the importance, now, with the Premier League title race drifting, of this eighth semi-final.
Sunderland’s victory at Stamford Bridge was surprise enough. More startling was the fact it should happen to Mourinho, who forged his reputation in this competition as master of the big moments, a manager for whom pressure brings clarity.
It is a talent that remains in Europe, just as in both previous knockout rounds Chelsea have been, in effect, ushered through in the second leg by a one-off Mourinho masterclass: first the defeat of Galatasaray, aided by a velvet- glove pre-match defusing of Didier Drogba, who was drowned in kindness. Then the mid-match rejig to see off Paris Saint-Germain via some controlled direct football after Eden Hazard left the pitch.
For all the brilliance of Atletico’s La Liga season, Chelsea will still be considered a 50/50 bet to win this tie. They won the competition two years ago; they have Mourinho. It is in many ways an excellent position for Diego Simeone, who gets to approach this semi not just with a more balanced squad and a thrilling sense of momentum in the league, but with a mild sense of being the underdog.
On the eve of this first leg, Simeone was quite happy to defend the qualities of Mourinho’s attack, describing both Eto’o and Torres as “great strikers”. Mourinho, in fairness, is unlikely to repeat the experiment in Paris that saw Andre Schurrle playing as a false No 9. A patched-up Eden Hazard is also a possible starter on the left having flown with the squad to Madrid. With Branislav Ivanovic suspended one option would be to move Cesar Azpilicueta across and bring in Ashley Cole, who has barely played of late. Mourinho is more likely to use David Luiz on the right. – (Guardian service)