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John Brewin profile picture Posted by John Brewin
Aug 17, 2014

Mou's "little horses" turn to Thoroughbreds

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has labeled his side title contenders for the forthcoming Premier League season.

There has been a quiet satisfaction about Jose Mourinho's build-up to Chelsea's season. "I like my squad very much," he said this week. "I love the club because the club was fantastic and gave me the three targets I was asking for."

- Marcotti: Premier League storylines
- Worrall: Five questions for Chelsea
- Predictions: ESPNFC's verdict for new season

Premier League peers have not been quite so fortunate. Friend and mentor Louis van Gaal has entered his maiden Manchester United campaign without a single player he had personally earmarked for recruitment. Another former associate in Brendan Rodgers admits he is still short of a striker. Manchester City are wrestling with the permutations and constraints of financial fair play while old adversary Arsene Wenger has spent big but lacks the defensive midfielder and additional centre-back he might like.

"The squad has experience, it has characters and personalities, it has people with ambition," said Mourinho on Friday. "We covered many positions. I'm very happy with the squad."

Adding Diego Costa, Felipe Luis and Cesc Fabregas has consigned last season's "little horse" metaphor to the knacker's yard. All three are the experienced, hard-bitten professionals that Mourinho favours while Didier Drogba's return brings back a trusted lieutenant. Having backed his manager in providing the players he requires and also countenancing the sale of Juan Mata and David Luiz (two players the owner liked) Roman Abramovich will demand trophies, while Chelsea are also the overriding bookmakers' and experts' favourites for the title.

Last season saw Mourinho's constant lowering of expectations achieve its chief aim: keeping himself in a job. Probably his best management was in an upward direction. Club insiders suggest that there were certain points in the season when the returning manager feared for his employment prospects; a glance at Abramovich's previous hires shows that all permanent managers who did not win a league title were fired, save for Roberto Di Matteo, who had to win the European Cup to last a few extra months.

Behind the public veneer, Mourinho does not always brim with the limitless confidence of a self-appointed "Special One". Journalist Diego Torres' "The Special One: The Dark Side of Jose Mourinho" was a hardly objective account but revealed that its subject's spell at Real Madrid was often by wracked by serious self-doubt.

However, Mourinho won La Liga in his second season, holding off a Pep Guardiola-led Barcelona. The pattern of his career suggests second seasons are usually his best -- trebles with Porto and Inter Milan and an utterly dominant Premier League title defence in his first spell at Chelsea.

The first season of his second spell at Stamford Bridge brought a second successive trophy-less campaign, when not winning silverware had been unthinkable for nine successive years from 2003. There are those who believe Mourinho has lost what once made him so special and successful.

His 2013-14 campaign saw him, as if recovering from the high altitude of being at the most demanding club on the planet, successfully regulate expectations when an obverse view would suggest his team blew a title that was firmly in their hands. Losing at Crystal Palace on March 29 saw the manager adopt a shrugging "told you so" stance, writing down on a reporter's notebook the quality he felt his team lacked.

"Balls" was the scribbled answer, which were similarly lacking when Chelsea lost to Sunderland three weeks later to end the manager's 78-game unbeaten home record at the Bridge. Demba Ba's goal at Anfield might have been the key moment in deciding the title's destiny but by then, Chelsea's role was as mere spoilers seeking solace.

"We can say that we won two matches against the champions," said Mourinho at Anfield that May afternoon. "We won both matches against Liverpool and won both against City. It doesn't matter which one is champion."

Now Mourinho's task is abundantely clear -- the title must be taken from City, despite there being a reprise of previous humble stylings on Friday. "Last season we did not feel a title contender but we finished very close to the title," he said. "If you want me to say we will win the league I can't, because I respect this competition.

"We are title contenders. Every other team that wants to be, welcome to that title race because we want to be in that group."

For the moment, cutting remarks about his rivals are being kept in the drawer. Instead, Mourinho luxuriates in summer business that -- despite the superstar arrivals of two players who can answer last season's goalscoring problems -- currently leaves Chelsea's dealings in profit.

"The structure that supports me did fantastic work," he said. "I think I was good in the explanation of my needs. Because I was good in the explanation of my needs the club was fantastic the way they were fighting to give me what I needed. My squad is very good, not perfect, but it's very good."

In swapping Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Samuel Eto'o for Costa, Fabregas and Luis -- ageing legs for proven talent at peak level -- it is little wonder that Mourinho is so approving, though such satisfaction will only be sustained by the title.

John Brewin

Based in London, from where he covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. He reported from the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and was formerly a senior editor of ESPNsoccernet.

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