Mourinho needs to rotate tired Hazard and Co
CHELSEA v STOKE CITY
(Tomorrow, 12.30am, Singtel TV Ch 102 & StarHub TV Ch 227)
Something incredible happened at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
Belgium were struggling to hang on to their 1-0 lead against Israel in a Euro 2016 Group B qualifier.
Coach Marc Wilmots needed to do something. He wanted to see more intensity from his side.
But nobody expected to see him take off Eden Hazard. Hazard was clearly displeased.
One of the best players in the English Premier League this season, the 24-year-old has been the driving force behind Chelsea's title charge.
Recently, he was ranked the joint-top attacking midfielder in Europe (alongside Arsenal's Mesut Oezil) by CIES Football Observatory, a statistical research group which ranked the players based on categories such as shooting and chances created.
Hazard, though, understood Wilmots' decision when the anger in him subsided.
"I asked the coach for a reason and he told me that I was tired. Maybe I was a little bit tired," he said.
Indeed, if the brilliant Belgian starts against Stoke City in the Premiership match at Stamford Bridge tomorrow morning (Singapore time), he would have started all 30 league games for Chelsea this term.
For club and country, he has already made 48 appearances this term. Only on five occasions has he missed a Blues outing.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho's policy of playing his best players almost all the time has taken its toll on Hazard.
But he is not the only one who is overworked at the club.
Eleven Chelsea players have started more than 20 league fixtures this season - more than any other team in the English top flight.
Not taking into account January transfer signings, no team in the top half of the table even come close.
Manchester City, Southampton and Stoke City are second on the chart, and each have seven players who started more than 20 league matches. Arsenal have just three.
Lest one forgets, Chelsea fought on other fronts, too.
The Blues played six matches en route to winning the League Cup, and also reached the Champions League's Round of 16 before they lost to Paris St Germain.
The lack of rotation on Mourinho's part perhaps explains for the recent dip in Chelsea's performances, which contrasted starkly with their rip-roaring form at the start of the league campaign.
They began the season with a 14-game unbeaten run, during which they scored 33 goals.
However, in their last seven league outings, they have won just four and scored only 10 goals.
Chelsea's six-point lead at the top of the table will come in handy, as does their game in hand over their title rivals.
But, as the season enters its business end, the fatigue will become more pronounced.
Mourinho's reluctance to rotate or place more faith in his squad players may backfire.
Chelsea will be wary of Man City's resilience and an in-form Arsenal closing in fast.
But it is the fatigue factor that Mourinho should be most worried about.
By the number
11: Eleven Chelsea players have started more than 20 league games this season - the highest in the English Premier League. Hazard has started 29 of them.
Mourinho: Title race is still open
"If we are champions in the last match, I’m more than happy with that. I’m not thinking about how or when. I’m just thinking that we need to win six matches and draw one."
- Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho (above), who had predicted when and where the Blues would lift the trophy in their title-winning 2005 and 2006 seasons, declining to make such a prediction this time
Chelsea are six points clear of second-placed Manchester City and with a game in hand, but Jose Mourinho believes the title race is still open and even fourth-placed Manchester United, who are eight points behind, are in contention.
"With eight matches to go, it is a difficult gap from the first to fifth, but the points difference between second, third and fourth make me feel that they are there," Mourinho said yesterday.
"In the last matches, they (United) become consistent in results and also the quality of their performances.
"We need six victories and one draw in nine matches, so a good situation for us, a situation that all the other clubs would like, but it's pure mathematics."
In winning the title in 2005 and 2006, Mourinho predicted when and where Chelsea would lift the trophy.
It is "too early" to make such bold claims this time.
He added: "If we are champions in the last match, I'm more than happy with that.
"I'm not thinking about how or when. I'm just thinking that we need to win six matches and draw one.
"Every victory we have now is one victory less that we need and is one less occasion for our opponents to reach us.
"I don't care if it's in the hotel, or away or at home. I just want to win it.
"Many occasions in the Premier League, the clubs get the trophy in their last match at home.
"Our last match of the season is at home so, if we win the title, we get the trophy at our house, but I don't care even if somebody loses the trophy and we don't get the trophy. I'm happy with that.
"I just want to win it."
Captain John Terry would lift the trophy if Chelsea are successful, having signed a one-year contract extension during the international break.
"I knew it (would happen)," Mourinho said. "We all found the period without football as a good moment to sign it, to make it public and everybody knows two months before the end of the season that John is staying one more season."
Mourinho is yet to decide whether to risk striker Diego Costa for the Premier League leaders' clash with Stoke tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
Costa suffered a recurrence of his hamstring problem in last month's 3-2 win at Hull and withdrew from international duty with Spain.
Chelsea's top scorer will be in the squad for the Stamford Bridge fixture, but may not start.
Mourinho said: "Diego trained (on Thursday and Friday) with the group. He's not injured. I don't know if I start with him or not.
"We did all the tests and the scans to confirm two days ago scientifically the situation and in this moment the muscle is fine.
"But football is more than that. You need confidence. You don't need to break your intensity. That's our doubt. Let's see next 24 hours."
Asked the long-term solution to Costa's recurring problems, Mourinho insisted an operation would be undertaken only if there was no alternative.
Mourinho added: "I don't believe we will ever go in the surgery direction.
"(The solution) is to work the way he does all the season in prevention, in making the muscle stronger and, at the same time, elastic and flexible. Recover well - not a big accumulation of fatigue - and this is what we can do."
- PA Sport.