He couldn’t resist. He just couldn’t resist. Just when it seemed Jose Mourinho had answered his critics by showing he could lose with good grace – we weren’t good enough, the better team won, congratulations to them etc etc – so, as the television analysts pointed out, he went and spoiled it all.
Ten-man Paris St. Germain, claimed Chelsea’s vanquished coach, were guilty of dirty tricks at the death. Of time wasting, of over-celebration. Of being, as he put it, very “clever.”
Who are you trying to kid, Jose?
As an attempt to justify his expensively assembled team’s clueless approach as they crashed out of the Champions League this week despite playing an hour of normal time and 30 minutes of extra time with an extra man, it was unconvincing to the point of laughable.
It was also somewhat rich from a coach who, for all his many deserved titles and trophies across Europe, knows a thing or two about the “art” of gamesmanship – a trend that is suddenly creeping ever so stealthily into the English game.
For years, English football has vociferously pointed the finger at its Continental and South American cousins claiming they are full of ‘wind-up merchants’ who will do anything and everything to influence officials. Diving is one example. Rolling around in agony after hardly being touched is another. A third is surrounding the referee in an attempt to get an opponent sent off. The rest of the world should learn from the English; how to play fair, Corinthian spirit, etc etc. Jolly good show, old boy.
Except that on Wednesday, Chelsea were the ones not playing fair. Whatever your allegiance, the sight of virtually the entire Chelsea team closing in on the Dutch referee following Zlatan Ibrahamovic’s poorly timed but hardly stomach-churning tackle on Oscar was disgraceful. So, equally, was Oscar’s reaction.
Twenty-four hours earlier Mourinho had chosen his words carefully in the build-up to the do-or-die fixture. PSG had been surprisingly physical in the first leg, he charged. What he didn’t say, as everyone knew, was that PSG were by far the better team in Paris and would still take some beating. Rather, that he had expected more quality from such big-spending opponents.
It was classic Mourinho. The message, in so many words, was that the referee should be on his guard for any PSG antics second time round. Don’t forget too that according to Mourinho, an unspoken conspiracy was allegedly being waged against his unloved team in the Premier League by officials favouring the opponent. In terms of being “clever”, it was typical kidology but this time the mind games came back to haunt him.
It is no co-incidence, perhaps, that Chelsea’s squad is packed with Latin players. Wonderfully creative on their day, they are too often guilty of appalling errors of judgement when it comes to gamesmanship. Picked up, presumably, from their previous clubs? Old habits die hard.
Such conduct, as I said before, is starting to take root in the English game. It’s happening all over the country but no-one epitomises it more than Diego Costa who far too often appears to have the shortest and most explosive of fuses when it comes to behaving within the rules. If, as he so often professes, Mourinho loves English football, he should have a word in the ear of some of his highly-paid stars and explain to them just how far they can go.
If and when he does, it won’t make a jot of difference to this season, in Europe at least. Because Chelsea, like most English teams, are out of contention. And that is an equally worrying trend. How come clubs who play in the most watched and competitive league in the world, where anyone can beat anyone else on a given day, have become so tame on the biggest stage of all?
A mixture of mental and physical fatigue? Possibly. Flattering to deceive? Maybe. The acute demands of a highly-charged domestic season? Certainly. After all, you don’t see Chelsea very often conceding goals from set-pieces. Nor do you see the leading team in the Premier League being knocked out by 10 men after twice being ahead.
But Chelsea aren’t the only ones. The fact is the English Premier League needs to face up to the fact that it is not, as it likes to think, the best league in the world. The most watched, the most financially lucrative. Perhaps the most entertaining. But not the best.
Suddenly there is a very real possibility that for the second time in three seasons, no English club will make it into the last eight of Europe’s elite competition.
Arsenal, beaten 3-1 at home by AS Monaco in the first leg of their round of their last-16 tie, and Manchester City, who lost 2-1 at home to Barcelona in theirs, are both on the brink of elimination. Liverpool were bundled out at the group stage – and then, less forgiveably, bundled out of the Europa League too after being “relegated” to UEFA’s number two competition from which Tottenham have also departed leaving only Everton clinging on.
The speed of the demise is alarming. Between 2007 and 2009, England provided 11 out of 24 Champions League quarter-finalists. Now, Spain are the dominant force along with Germany. England may spend the money but it no longer buys you automatic success.
Too often there is no plan B. Against Monaco, Arsenal looked like a bunch of talented individuals rather than a team. They didn’t seem to have any idea of their opponent’s strategy. Which begs the question, is part of the problem down to coaching? Do all the resources at clubs’ disposal somehow prevent coaches building a team from the bottom up? Is there a sense that simply buying up the best talent is enough?
At the end of the day, as they say in football parlance, it’s probably more down to the players. Maybe the Premier League, with its high wages and global appeal, prioritises individuals over the collective. Something has to change. Otherwise it could be a long road back to the top.
Jamie Carragher, who won a Champions League medal with Liverpool in 2005, summed up the current state of English teams in Europe from a tactical and technical standpoint.
“Chelsea are the best team in our league but we are miles away from success. Look at the TV deal that has just gone through,” Carragher said. “We’ve got the richest league in the world with some of the best players and we want to see the English teams do well, but we are being kidded.”
He, for one, wasn’t kidding.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org