Under Mourinho, Chelsea can win Europe's biggest prize
CHELSEA v SCHALKE
(Tomorrow, 2.40am, SingTel mio TV Ch 112)
Jose Mourinho is a coaching chameleon. His volatile personality follows Chelsea's fortunes.
His snake oil salesman routine usually covers weakness. He is a master of misdirection, ready to call on bluff and bluster to conceal any shortcomings.
He shouts when the Blues have nothing to shout about. It's a con job.
His patter can be terrifically entertaining, but toothless. He jokes, complains and ridicules to distract. All that moaning masks mediocrity.
But he's quiet right now; a coiled snake aware of his power and content to stay in the shadows. His relative silence speaks volumes.
Chelsea are doing the talking for him. Mourinho has nothing to hide.
The irrepressible pragmatist must realise he has steadily assembled a squad to chase down trophies on several fronts. He's nobody's fool.
He knows he has the team to take out the Champions League.
Their campaign begins against German side Schalke at Stamford Bridge tomorrow morning (Singapore time). It could end in Germany at the Berlin final.
From a settled manager to a superior squad, everything feels different about the Blues this time around.
Mourinho always fancies himself as a man on a mission, but this one seems personal, as if he's borrowed from a cheesy tagline of the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
Real Madrid's La Decima triumph almost certainly wasn't celebrated in the Mourinho household. His reign in Spain left him looking decidedly plain.
He staggered out of the country nursing wounds that will heal only with a third Champions League triumph - and the first at his spiritual sporting home.
Spanish cliques conspired to eviscerate his reputation, eating away at his confidence like a virus. Suddenly, he didn't look so special.
He went back to Chelsea because he had nowhere else to go. And then he went back to work.
Domestic supremacy is still the essential prerequisite of a Chelsea coach, but ruling Europe and mocking the Real boardroom remain the personal goal.
This season seems as good a time as any to exact revenge.
With Real and Bayern Munich going through a period of readjustment after playing musical chairs with star performers and three of Atletico Madrid's Champions League finalists now playing for Chelsea, the Blues are primed for a European push.
There is a whiff of victory about the Bridge.
Preparations for a continental assault began in January with the acquisition of Nemanja Matic; an elegant defensive midfielder designed to deliver in Europe's most intimidating cauldrons.
The Serb permits Cesc Fabregas the kind of freedom previously offered to him by Sergio Busquets at Barcelona. When Matic reigns, Fabregas pours forward.
Up front, Diego Costa's remarkable seven goals in four Premier League games provide the latest reminder of what a perceptive operator Mourinho really is in the transfer market.
While the addition of Loic Remy further supports both Chelsea's Champions League credentials and Costa's hamstrings, which are tweaked more often than Eric Clapton's guitar strings.
But the most intriguing development at the resurgent club might occur with a scribble in the boardroom.
Eden Hazard is reportedly signing a new £200,000 ($408,000)-a-week contract that would make him Chelsea's highest-paid player. More interestingly, his long-term deal follows other five-year contracts handed to Cesar Azpilicueta and Thibaut Courtois.
For the first time, Mourinho is thinking beyond the next transfer window and considering his legacy.
His quick-fix formula failed him in Spain. Rather than lay the foundation for European hegemony, he turned into a detonator. He destroyed more than he created.
Mourinho was a past master of the silverware smash and grab, but dynasty building finally seems to be the order of the day. He's planting roots and preparing to rule Europe for the long haul.
Chelsea already boast the world's greatest goalkeeper and possibly the best front five in Europe, based on current form.
A lack of pace in central defence is an ongoing concern, but Filipe Luis should feature prominently in a congested campaign that will include domestic fixtures against Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool immediately after Champions League games.
Fortunately, the draw was kind to the club, throwing Chelsea into Group G with Schalke, Maribor and Sporting Lisbon. They should be genial warm-ups ahead of the knock-out stages.
The stars are aligning for the ones Mourinho has already signed.
He has taken just over a year to achieve his perennial target of having two dependable players in every position.
He has assembled a hungry, committed squad of talented individuals dedicated to the Chelsea collective.
He has assembled a squad capable of lifting the Champions League.
That's why Mourinho has been surprisingly quiet of late. He doesn't need to sing when Chelsea are winning.
"Expect Chelsea to go out all guns blazing against their opponents. They want to qualify early from the group stage. It allows some rest at an important and busy time around December. This would help the manager a lot, when tiredness, injuries and suspensions start to kick in."
— Former Chelsea player Pat Nevin
Schalke in a sorry state
Schalke are in a crisis.
The Royal Blues, who finished third in the Budesliga last season, were crushed 4-1 by Borussia Moenchengladbach last Saturday.
They are third from the bottom with just one point and a goal difference of minus four. That point came from a 1-1 draw with champions Bayern Munich.
Schalke, who also lost 2-1 to third-tier Dynamo Dresden in the opening round of the German Cup a month ago, sought more consistency this season after last season's roller-coaster ride.
But coach Jens Keller has yet to get the most out of a talented squad, with Kevin-Prince Boateng sluggish in midfield and attacking midfielder Julian Draxler and Dutch international striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar playing below par.
Keller's cause has not been helped by injuries to defenders Felipe Santana and Joel Matip, while other injured squad players are also out and restricting his options.
Forward Sidney Sam, who arrived from Bayer Leverkusen, has not yet added the pace to their game they expected, and their defence has let in seven goals in their three league games.
With Chelsea waiting in the Champions League, Keller (above) knows time is running out for him to start delivering.
"There is no point in talking much about it now," he said, after last Saturday's defeat at Gladbach.
"We will now work hard in the coming days, lick our wounds and pick ourselves up. We want to present ourselves well, but we are not at eye level with Chelsea at this time."
However, Schalke skipper Benedikt Howedes, who is also unavailable due to injury, is hopeful that they can shrug off their disappointing start to the German domestic season.
"We have always managed to put in good performances in the Champions League, even when we were not having the best run in the Bundesliga," said the Germany international defender.
"We don't have to do the running against Chelsea, and that might be an advantage." - Wire Services.