Jose Mourinho will need to rediscover heart of Chelsea
The demands were clear before kick-off and throughout the game. The Chelsea fans, keen as they are on the Europa League title and a top-four place, only really want one thing: the return of Jose Mourinho as manager this summer.
Mourinho’s face was on the front cover of one popular Chelsea fanzine, labelled “Wanted…by popular demand”. It only took eight minutes of the first half for the Matthew Harding Stand to start singing the name of their prince in exile. Half-way through the first half they started to implore him back, with “Jose’s coming home”.
Of course the fans would hope for the return of that unique figure in the club’s history, hoping to bring back the days when Chelsea would have to crane their necks to spot fourth place in the Premier League by the start of May.
The problem for Mourinho, though, and he must be more aware of this than anyone, is that simply flying back into this job will not make in 2005 all over again. While Mourinho’s Chelsea was one of the most powerful, cohesive, balanced machines of the Premier League era, this squad is not quite that yet.
This Chelsea squad, and the team out last night, was as ever a mix of Mourinho and post-Mourinho Chelseas, with two of his old guard in Frank Lampard and Petr Cech but far more players for whom the Special One was just a name, a legendary inspiration, rather than a real part of any of their careers.
So the hybrid squad produced a mixed performance, struggling through the first half, only coming to life after half-time.
Nowhere was this truer in midfield, when the pairing of David Luiz and Lampard did not, in a skittish first 45 minutes, provide the same natural balance that Basel’s well-honed unit had. Since taking over as interim manager, Rafael Benitez’s preferred midfield pair, more often than not, has been either Ramires and Lampard or Ramires and Jon Obi Mikel.
Ramires, used last night on the right wing, can provide the selfless running to anchor a more creative player. Yesterday Benitez went instead for his two most incisive individuals, Lampard and Luiz, the iconic players of the Mourinho and post-Mourinho era respectively.
But with none of that old discipline, and certainly no Claude Makelele to neutralise danger before it emerged, Luiz and Lampard allowed Basel too much space in an even first half. Neither of them stopped Valentin Stocker from running beyond them just before the interval, and it was his neat ball to Mohamed Salah which gave Basel a brief hope of progress.
While the imbalance of the midfield pair, the lack of the old Mourinho model, might have cost Chelsea a goal it was that same attacking imbalance which won Chelsea the game. Lampard made one and Luiz scored the other as Chelsea surged ahead.
Lampard’s shot from the edge of the box was saved, allowing Fernando Torres to draw Chelsea level on the night. Victor Moses, whose professional debut came weeks after Mourinho left Chelsea, scored a second. Luiz then showed yet again that he is the most thrillingly complete and audacious footballer in England, curling in an implausible third with his weaker left boot.
From there they saw out the game. And so the Lampard and Luiz gamble paid off. It is increasingly likely that Lampard will be here next season, while Luiz will surely be a fixture at Chelsea for years to come, almost certainly for longer than whoever the next manager is.
But that man will need to find a midfield balance, to match the control that Manchester United – through Michael Carrick - and Manchester City – through Yaya Toure and David Silva - can exert on games, if the title is to come back to Stamford Bridge.
Because this team did not look much like a Mourinho side. His Chelsea, Internazionale and even Real Madrid teams were very well-guarded in front of defence. Claude Makelele, Esteban Cambiasso and Xabi Alonso have all done interpretations of that job for him.
This Chelsea team, even with Jon Obi Mikel, lacks that deep controller. Maybe Alonso will follow Mourinho from Madrid to Chelsea this summer, and he would certainly add the perfect balance to Lampard, Luiz or almost any other midfielder Mourinho could find.
But Mourinho, or anyone else who joins, will certainly have to assert himself on this squad, and on the balance of the team, if he wants Chelsea to control games as they need to so they can win titles again.
Belfast Telegraph Digital