In my imagination, Chelsea's midfield fulcrum Oscar has the clean-shaven face of the angel-voiced chorister who recorded the high-pitched squeal of the Champions League anthem. Although his passport suggests he is 22, the Brazilian international's boyish looks mean he could pass for 15. His arrival at Stamford Bridge in July 2012 compelled teammate Ashley Cole to tweet with unusual perception: "Wow, he looks young."
This season, the youth has come of age in fast-motion. His mature decision-making, calm passing, stealth physicality and ability to send the ball hurtling toward goal from drone-strike distance have propelled Jose Mourinho's team in transition. The Londoners have rarely played cohesive, collective football, yet are ominously in possession of second place.
On Sunday, they host Manchester City in this week's top-of-the-table clash. If they are to combat the corporeally diverse midfield threat of Yaya Toure and David Silva, Chelsea will not only need the Sao Paulo-born youth to excel with his play, but like Katniss Everdeen, Johnny and Luther Htoo and Alexander the Great before him, assume the mantel of leadership at an extraordinarily young age. This is the season in which Chelsea will become Oscar's team.
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Few young players have experienced a more dizzying ascent through the ranks of elite world football. 54 club starts in Brazil and a tournament clinching hat-trick in the U-20 World Cup final placed the playmaker on the radars of Europe’s powerhouse teams. Barcelona and Real Madrid both wooed him. A bidding war ensued. But even after a $40.2 million bid secured Chelsea his services, few predicted that the young prospect would star so quickly.
Oscar became a cult hero at Stamford Bridge in September 2012, the night he made his full Chelsea debut in a critical Champions League group stage test against Serie A power, Juventus. In the 31st minute, he blasted the ball from distance to open the scoring. Two minutes later, the debutant repeated the feat, swiveling to curl the ball nonchalantly into the right hand corner from 25 yards. I interviewed the young Brazilian shortly after this feat and he giddily revealed the secret behind his potent play. "Wherever I am when I receive the ball -- near or far -- shooting is the first thing that comes to my mind," Oscar said. "All I have to do is see the ball and I experience a hunger to score."
That kind of buccaneering mindset was not always appreciated by Interim Manager, Rafael Benitez. Fighting for space in a Chelsea midfield clogged with the talents of Frank Lampard, Ramires, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard, the young Brazilian only completed 20 games.
As such, Oscar's evolution has occurred amidst the transition and upheaval of Mourinho’s return. The Portuguese boss has set about remaking his squad of "young eggs" with methodical frenzy, retrofitting John Terry and Frank Lampard, painstakingly reconstructing Fernando Torres' self-esteem and shuffling through the glut of fantasy midfield options -- Hazard, Willian, Kevin De Bruyne, Andre Schurrle and Juan Mata among them.
Eyebrows were raised when Mourinho anointed the 22-year-old as his attacking coil, declaring "if somebody tells me that Oscar is not Chelsea's best player since the beginning of the season, I'd have to disagree." The comments were seen by many as barbs aimed at "Prisoner of Conscience" Mata, yet the Brazilian Number 10 has responded with venom. He now leads the team (along with Hazard) in goals scored and the five he has netted include two in the past two league games.
Goal-scoring statistics only hint at part of Oscar's transformation. They do not capture the totality of the discipline and self-confidence evident in Oscar's 2013 displays. No longer a man whose first instinct is to shoot, "near or far," among Chelsea players, the Brazilian has completed the second-most passes in the attacking third (162) and also leads the team in tackles made in the attacking half of the field (8). His performances routinely meld technical prowess, keen eye for space and cool decision-making under pressure, enabling him to impose his will on the opposition. All this while embodying the work ethic that Mourinho craves from the entire squad.
Mourinho clearly delights in Oscar's form and the way his public backing off the field has enhanced the influence his player wields on it. Last Saturday, Oscar sauntered onto the field as a second-half substitute to settle the game against Cardiff City. He needed just 19 minutes before unleashing a dipping drive that sealed the victory. Mourinho, who had been banished into the stands, could not contain his glee, celebrating unabashedly with the Chelsea fans around him.
It remains to be seen if those scenes will repeat themselves on Sunday. On paper, City's squad outstrips Chelsea player for player. But Mourinho will put stock in his youthful leader and the words of another young general, Alexander the Great, the man who once said, "an army of sheep led by the lion will defeat an army of lions led by the sheep."