Mourinho and Mikel transforming fortunes

Posted by Mark Worrall

John Obi Mikel Chelsea goal vs Derby CountyGettyImagesJohn Obi Mikel headed home a rare Chelsea goal against Derby County.

With the transfer window now open, and speculation about possible arrivals and departures at Stamford Bridge ranging from the sublime (Radamel Falcao) to the ridiculous (Mario Balotelli), with the disappointing (Juan Mata) and the repetitive (Wayne Rooney) thrown in for good measure, it's easy to get distracted from the fact that Chelsea have come through a hectic festive fixture schedule unbeaten and relatively unscathed.

Starting with the pre-Christmas 0-0 draw against Arsenal at the Emirates, it was evident that Blues boss Jose Mourinho had gone a long way to remedying the defensive issues which had blighted earlier performances and resulted in an alarming number of goals being conceded against opposition not renowned for rippling the net -- step forward Sunderland and Stoke City.

- Lythell: Mikel the unlikely FA Cup hero

Whilst questions have regularly been asked of Mourinho's back-line -- where only captain John Terry could be regularly absolved of any blame given Branislav Ivanovich's occasional somnambulant moments, Ashley Cole forgetting for a few games he is still the best left-back in the Premier League and David Luiz... well just being David Luiz -- the shortcomings in the defensive midfield area which has been marshalled variously this season by Frank Lampard, Ramires, Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel (with an effective cameo by Luiz thrown in for good measure) appeared to have been overlooked by the Chelsea manager. A curious state of affairs given the trophy-winning "defence is the best form of attack" ethos upon which Mourinho founded and nurtured his "special" reputation.

Against Arsenal, Mourinho, conscious of the attacking, creative prowess of Mezut Ozil, Aaron Ramsay and Tomas Rosicky, rolled out his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation deploying Ramires, Lampard and Mikel in midfield in a bid to nullify the trio and prevent them lining up Theo Walcott and Oliver Giroud with striking opportunities. The plan worked, the Gunners were stifled and the oft maligned and misunderstood Mikel was the star of the show. "Boring, boring Chelsea," chanted supporters of the north London club to the amusement of their counterparts, who delighted in reminding them how many years it has been since they last won any silverware.

Boxing Day saw another Blues shutout, this time at home to Swansea City. The final score of 1-0 owed more to the profligacy of Samuel Eto'o than any great defensive display since the Swans lacked any kind of ambition going forward. Nevertheless, there was an obdurate solidity about Chelsea's central midfield, and the protection afforded to the backline, that gave a degree of confidence to fans harbouring concerns about their chances of containing free-scoring Luis Suarez when Chelsea welcomed Liverpool to Stamford Bridge three days later.

With Ramires suspended for the visit of the Reds, Mourinho opted to start David Luiz in midfield alongside Lampard with Mikel warming the bench, but when Martin Skrtel gave Brendan Rodgers' side an early lead it seemed that the plan might backfire, however the goal served to spur Chelsea into action. With Eden Hazard in scintillating form, an equaliser was never in doubt and the Belgium international duly obliged in the 17th minute. A Samuel Eto'o strike gave the Blues a 2-1 half-time advantage and after the interval Mikel replaced Lampard and the Blues shut up shop. Liverpool, and Suarez in particular, hustled and harried, but the result was never in doubt. Master tactician Mourinho made the right calls and his players didn't let him down.

New Year's Day, and it was more of the same. With over 50 minutes gone at a rain-swept St.Mary's, Southampton were holding Chelsea 0-0 with the inclement weather the only likely victor -- cue a transformational double substitution from the Blues manager. Critics might argue that it's all too easy for Mourinho having players of proven quality such as Oscar and Willian to bring on as he did in this case to replace fans-favourite Juan Mata and Andre Schurrle, but it takes an element of genius to get the timing and instructions right. In the end it was easy. Willian to Oscar to Torres, 1-0. Oscar to Willian, 2-0. Oscar himself, 3-0 -- game over.

"They gave intensity," mused Mourinho modestly after the dynamic duo had combined to put the Saints to the sword -- and the boys from Brazil were on hand again on Sunday to ensure Chelsea overcame a stubborn Derby County side to progress to the Fourth Round of this season's FA Cup competition. The Blues' 2-0 victory came courtesy of a remarkable and rare goal from Mikel and a wonderful strike from Oscar. Playing his 300th game for Chelsea, Mikel, still only 26 years old, and proudly wearing the captain's armband following the earlier withdrawal of Essien, rose majestically above the Derby defence to head home a Willian free kick. The fact that it was only his fourth goal for the Stamford Bridge club might go some way to explaining why his presence in a Blue shirt is sometimes questioned by the fickle, but the smile on his face as 5,500 travelling supporters chanted, "he scores when he wants" said it all.

Mikel leading by example? Only Mourinho would have the minerals to engineer such a situation. Chelsea may well do some business in this transfer window, a striker who can score regularly would be a welcome addition to the squad. In the event the London club are thwarted in their endeavours to sign a world-class forward this time around, there will no doubt be more lamenting from Mourinho at the spurned chances that will surely be created along the way as the season unfolds. Right now though, game-by-game, the Blues boss appears to have a cunning plan to address the issue and just in case they fail: John Obi Mikel. Chelsea's men for all seasons are doing a good job.

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