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April 15, 2005

Mourinho: All tactics but no tact

Followers of European football have undoubtedly watched in awe as manager Jose Mourinho has risen through the ranks from obscurity, winning trophy after trophy. Two years ago, the relatively unknown Mourinho-led FC Porto to a fabulous treble, capped by a 2003 UEFA Cup win over Celtic. The next year, Porto tore through the Champions League, smashing Monaco 3-0 in the 2004 final. Mourinho left the Portuguese club on a high, taking the managerial job at Chelsea.

Since then, he has fine-tuned the London club, molding it into a world-class outfit. Chelsea has been the class of the Premier League this year, trampling the domestic competition. Now, with FC Barcelona eliminated in the Champions League, the Blues look like the favorite to take the competition, Mourinho's second in two years. Not bad at all for a man who got his break serving as Bobby Robson's translator at Porto.

The Portugal native's managerial prowess stems from his boundless knowledge of his players and his impeccable preparation for the game. The Blues have undergone a vast improvement under his command. The inconsistency that marked the Claudio Ranieri-helmed Chelsea sides of years past is gone. Chelsea has been tactically proficient in every single game this season.

Mourinho has prepped his side perfectly for nearly every game and his players have deserved almost every point they've taken from the league this year. All these factors make it probable that Chelsea will be celebrating two more titles at the end of the year in addition to the Carling Cup clinched back in February.

He has also succeeded in getting the most out of players on his new squad. Particularly telling is the recent renaissance of enigmatic midfielder Joe Cole. Long criticized for failing to fulfill his vast potential, the young Englishman is now starting to prove the talking heads wrong. His mazy dribbling and endless running in the absence of Arjen Robben have been a large part of Chelsea's victories in recent weeks. Moreover, Cole's recent man-of-the-match display in the England shirt against Northern Ireland prompted Sven Goran Erikkson to thank Mourinho personally for the improvements in his mercurial left-sided midfielder's game.

However, for all his good qualities, the genius manager seems to bring as many deplorable traits to the table. In the aforementioned Carling Cup final, Mourinho was red-carded and removed from the touchline after a derogatory celebration in front of Liverpool fans. In my own first encounter with Mourinho after Porto's upset of Manchester United at Old Trafford last year, he ran gleefully down the touchline, middle finger extended to the crowd, after a last minute equalizer sent Porto through to the next round.

Recently, he has come under direct fire from UEFA for comments made at Swedish referee Anderss Frisk after a tight match in Barcelona. One of the organization's most respected referees, Frisk has subsequently retired, citing the death threats he's received as a result of intense scrutiny from crazed fans. Officials at UEFA have told Mourinho to shape up or face the consequences. Chief of referees Volker Roth has gone as far as describing the temperamental Portuguese as "an enemy of football." The Chelsea manager has responded by threatening to sue for slander.

Robson, Mourinho's mentor and first employer, has told his pupil he needs to tone it down as well. But so far, he has shown no signs of self-restraint. UEFA recently handed a two-match touchline ban to the Portuguese manager because of improper conduct at the Nou Camp. He'll be forced to miss both of Chelsea's crucial quarterfinal legs against Bayern Munich. His response? Anger at his club over their refusal to file an appeal against the ban.

There is no doubt over Mourinho's managerial abilities. Simply comparing the erratic Chelsea of last year to this year's unstoppable machine will prove that point. At only 42, he has racked up a truly enviable trophy tally. However, his confrontational nature and arrogance may prove his own undoing. It is hard to see Jose Mourinho ever putting a foot wrong when there is football concerned, but his off-the-field antics may yet prove to be a factor in his own demise.