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Transfer Rater: Morata to AC Milan

Football Whispers

Conte's last stand, trophy-hunter Mourinho on prowl

FA Cup
 By Phil Lythell

Mourinho's playful personality returns

It would be one of the greater understatements of our time to say that Jose Mourinho is fond of a soundbite. The Chelsea manager is rarely taciturn; even when he chooses to offer no comment he will often elaborate on why he doesn't want to do so. There is always a nugget to be dug out of The Special One.

He also rarely says anything without it having been considered beforehand. Few outbursts, proclamations or withering put-downs are uttered purely on the spur of the moment to be regretted once the red mist has dissipated. As such, he holds the press pack permanently in his thrall and provides supporters of all inclinations with no end of discussion points. With the possible exceptions of Sir Alex Ferguson and Johan Cruyff, there is no other football figure whose words are dissected more thoroughly than Mourinho's.

In the buildup to this Premier League season, there has been added focus on the Portuguese's utterances and, by and large, he has been saying exactly what Chelsea fans want to hear. With 12 months and three transfer windows in which to help carve out a squad in his image, Mourinho has once again assumed the air of perceived infallibility that was so often lacking in his first season back at the club.

While talk of the title was dismissed even when Chelsea sat on top of the pile in the closing weeks of the previous campaign, now it is the first topic on the agenda. The manager is now willing to talk about his team in such terms, when before he would looked nonplussed at the suggestion of winning the league.

Much of that is down to necessity, of course. Last year Mourinho was understandably guarded and pragmatic as he sought to downplay the potential of his squad while managing expectations at the same time. It made sense then, but having overseen major changes in the playing staff and with his own reputation to seed, that lack of bombast was never going to remain in place for a second campaign, and it really feels like the old Mourinho is back at the helm.

There is no questioning that the 51-year-old is back at a club where he is comfortable and feels loved, living in a city he enjoys and among a footballing public with which he can identify. But while he has often been at pains to point all of that out, at certain moments last season it did seem that all was not well within the confines of his mind.

Mourinho might have called himself "The Happy One" upon his return to English football, although that appeared to have been said while being mindful of his audience, one desperate to see a glimpse of the brash young manager that first arrived on these shores in 2004. Inside, he knew just how big a job he had on his hands and that it was not going to be plain sailing. He also knew that his reputation -- for which he has always been the biggest cheerleader -- would see some demanding instant success, blessed as he is with the touch of King Midas.

Mourinho was aware of these two conflicting realities and sought to buy himself some time. So far, it appears to have worked.

After a season when there were often more scowls than smiles despite a highly creditable Premier League challenge and the only decent showing from any of England's representatives in the Champions League, the famous mischievous charm has re-emerged. No longer the "little horses," Mourinho believes not only that Chelsea are genuine challengers but that their squad is equipped to be in contention for the next 10 years.

He's been bullish about his club's improved standing, but Mourinho has also fired the first salvos in the mental battle by questioning why he is perceived as being under pressure in just his second season at the club while some of his rivals can be afforded a decade of grace. It doesn't take a detective to deduce to whom he might be referring.

Jose Mourinho's playful demeanour has returned in his second season in charge of Chelsea.

Some might see such statements as unedifying, but Mourinho enjoys asking his inquisitors why he is held to different standards than others and, that being the case, he is not shy about highlighting the differences between himself and his opposite numbers at other clubs.

The authorities have also found themselves in his crosshairs even before the season began. With last season's Orwellian FA charge for his sarcastic review of Mike Dean's performance in the home defeat to Sunderland still obviously fresh in mind, along with his charge for encroaching onto the field of play at Aston Villa, Mourinho effectively accused the governing body of specifically targeting him when the issue was addressed in the news conference ahead of Monday night's clash with Burnley.

Reacting to the suggestion that he had had a few run-ins with the FA, he interrupted the journalist to change the emphasis of the question. "No, they have had run-ins with me," insisted Mourinho, prompting laughter from his audience. The statement was spoken with a degree of seriousness but also with intended levity, light years removed from the barely disguised fury that catalysed those two charges in the first place.

Time will tell whether this equilibrium will last for the whole season, but for the moment at least, he carries the demeanour of a man who is content with his lot and is looking forward to achieving great things. Given the excellent work that has been done in the transfer market, even if another striker and central midfielder would not go amiss, his qualified optimism is not misplaced.

Chelsea certainly have their best chance of winning the title since their second-place finish in 2011, an opinion that has been backed up by the bookmakers that have installed them as favourites. Even so, Mourinho is not stupid enough to make any bold predictions, an eminently sensible move when looking at the strength of the competition. Such a stance also denies his detractors a stick to beat him with should the season not go as planned.

No doubt there will be some outspoken comments and controversial outbursts in the heat of battle as the season progresses, but the foundations at Chelsea are as solid as they have been for some time. Of that, a confident and bubbly Mourinho is fully aware.

Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.


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