Mourinho's latest excuses mask strategic shortcomings

Posted by Mark Worrall

The biggest irony on a night when Chelsea contrived to put on one of their most limp displays in over a decade of Champions League football in losing to Basel was that because of the Steaua-Schalke 0-0 draw in Bucharest, the Blues -- by a strange quirk of mathematics -- managed to advance to the last 16.

While victory over the Romanian champions at Stamford Bridge next month will see Chelsea win Group E and be seeded in the draw for the next phase, given the abject manner of Tuesday night’s defeat, manager Jose Mourinho will know he cannot take anything, in particular his team, for granted.

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In the build-up to Tuesday night’s match at St Jakob Park, Mourinho had been blunt about his team’s main objective against Basel. “We are going to try to win and kill,” he said, with one eye on Chelsea’s demanding December schedule and without prior knowledge that qualification would be handed on a plate to the Blues.

What is alarming for supporters of the west London club is that in the wake of a soporific performance that saw the Blues slump to an embarrassing 1-0 defeat in which they failed to muster a single shot on target, Mourinho attributed the defeat to fatigue. “They won because we were sleeping in the last minutes,” lamented the Chelsea manager while commenting about Basel’s winning goal.

It came near the end, when the Blues' rear guard nodded off and Mohamed Salah sprinted past Branislav Ivanovic and beat the advancing Petr Cech with a deft shot which looped over the goalkeeper into the far corner. “If they weren’t sleeping, how could the ball go in? When you are tired you sleep. When you are tired you think slow. When you are tired you react late.”

Perhaps Mourinho failed to convey his intentions of trying to win and "kill" loudly enough to address his players' somnambulance. Maybe something along the lines of the fabled Sir Alex Ferguson half-time hair dryer treatment might have awakened Chelsea. Talk of fatigue from the Blues manager seems premature and will give little confidence to those fans needing reassurance that Mourinho is still the real deal and capable of marshaling his troops effectively enough for them to handle what Southampton (home) Sunderland (away), Stoke (a), Steaua (h), Crystal Palace (h), Sunderland (a), Arsenal (a), Swansea (h) and finally Liverpool (h) are going to challenge Chelsea with before the bells ring for New Year’s Day 2014.

The Blues traveled to Switzerland having beaten West Ham United 3-0 at a canter at the weekend. Venerable veteran Frank Lampard, given centre stage at Upton Park by Mourinho fielding an uncomplicated 4-3-3, had responded by rolling back the years and silencing the Hammers' boo-boys with a brace that took his record-breaking Chelsea tally to 207.

Lampard ran his socks off on Saturday night and it was a surprise to see the 35-year-old included in Mourinho’s starting XI to face Basel just three days later given the breadth and depth of talent the Blues manager has at his disposal.

Oscar was another player who surely deserved a rest, especially given the availability of Juan Mata, who found himself marooned once more on the bench -- a non-playing substitute yet again. One player who was allowed a breather against Basel, albeit only for the first 55 minutes, was Eden Hazard, with Willian coming into the team in his place.

The Brazilian was the only change to the Chelsea side that started against West Ham, and his freshness showed as he was, with the exception of the magnificent Cech -- who single-handedly kept Basel at bay in the first half -- the Blues' best player. Cesar Azpilicueta, once again being played out of position at left-back despite Ashley Cole being fit again, was given a torrid time in the first period by man of the match Salah.

In the second half, Basel manager Murat Yakin instructed Salah to have a go down the right side where he would eventually find Ivanovic "sleeping," as Mourinho referred to the Chelsea defender’s part in the passage of play leading to the home side’s winning goal.

“Maybe I should have made more changes from the game on Saturday,” offered Mourinho, clearly lacking the benefit of hindsight. “When the players play so well it’s a big temptation to keep the team, keep the players, give them more confidence. [But] I could see many signs of fatigue.”

Fatigue perhaps, but the overall impression was that the Chelsea manager not only got his team selection wrong but his tactics as well. What looked like an attacking 4-3-3 on paper played as a dour 4-5-1. Despite all Mourinho’s posturing about winning and "killing," there was a negative "happy to get a draw" look about the Blues and Basel punished them for it.

With the exception of the win against West Ham, November has been a forgettable month for the man dubbed the Special One. The excuses have come thick and fast from the Portuguese in recent weeks and it can only be a matter of time before Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich starts asking questions if results do not improve ... and Mourinho knows only too well what can happen when Mr. Abramovich starts asking questions.

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