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Jan 20, 2014

Mourinho counting his lucky stars for picking Chelsea over United

For 15 glorious minutes on Sunday at Stamford Bridge, Manchester United fans briefly forgot the grim reality of their Premier League fortunes and made believe that all was right with the world. As their team attacked the Chelsea defense with the kind of energy and conviction that reminded them of those heady days of seasons past, the supporters reverted to their old cocksure, swaggering selves. "Jose Mourinho, you wanted this job," they chanted at a very grumpy-looking Chelsea manager who was reported to have coveted the United throne so fiercely that he blubbered like a baby when David Moyes was crowned instead. It was a cheeky gibe, and even Mourinho appreciated the humor in it, allowing himself a wan smile, but in fact, the United supporters were dead wrong. The Special One never wanted to become the Chosen One for reasons that are becoming as abundantly clear as David Moyes' thousand-yard death stare.

By now, every United fan knows the look -- that vacant, glassy-eyed gaze of disbelief permanently affixed to the Lesser Scot's face, an expression that silently begs the Glazers to end his misery so he can be England's next manager. It made its Sunday debut a scant two minutes after the away fans had finished serenading Mourinho. That's when 86-year-old Samuel Eto'o reached back across the decades and juked Phil Jones out of his boots before letting fly from the edge of the box. The shot was well-struck but was going wide until its GPS offered it a course correction, the ball skimming off Michael Carrick's outstretched leg and looping into the far corner of the net.

Full coverage: - Brewin: Pressure growing on Utd - Lythell: Chelsea make light work - Okwonga: Utd's worrying lack of fight - Moyes: 'Terrible defending' in defeat - Tactics: Masterful, efficient Eto'o - FC TV: Hopping off Utd bandwagon - Nicol, Hislop: Is Eto'o 'back'? - Highlights: Chelsea 3-1 Man Utd (U.S. only)

By the way, imagine if I had turned to the guy next to me at New York's Football Factory and said "Hey, mate, care to make a little wager that Samuel Eto'o will score a hat trick today?" Just think of the odds I could have gotten. You know, once he stopped hysterically laughing at me.

Damned United. They had started so brightly and energetically only for a piece of wretched luck to derail their momentum and ultimately send them to another humbling defeat, their seventh in 22 league games under Moyes.

The defending champions are now an astonishing 14 points behind first-place Arsenal (Who in their right mind thought at the beginning of the season I would be typing those three words on Jan. 20? Not me, I can assure you), and while Moyes can point to the absence of his crocked-up strike force -- Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie -- he can't, as has been his wont, blame this latest setback on the anti-United bias of the referee.

Even if referee Phil Dowd may have been a tad harsh in dismissing Moyes' captain, Nemanja Vidic, for a reckless tackle in the 91st minute, he made amends moments later by allowing Rafael to stay on the field after a two-footed, studs-up lunge on Gary Cahill. United were a sorry sight at the end -- depleted, deflated, embarrassed. Does anyone really think that Mourinho would have wanted to be anywhere near that shambles? Mourinho may be a lot of things -- a preening poseur, a nabob of negativity, a bombastic boor -- but he's not stupid. He took one look at the squad that Sir Alex Ferguson would be bequeathing to his successor and saw it for what it was -- a team with no engine room and too many passengers in the quiet car. That it had overperformed for Ferguson in his valedictory season to win the Great Scot one last title will go down in English soccer history as a fantastic accomplishment, but Mourinho knew it couldn't be replicated. And did he really want Sir Alex peering over his shoulder as he tried to shape United in his own image? No, Mourinho was never going to Old Trafford even though he fluttered his eyes in that direction, much as he continues to do with his brazen courtship of Rooney. That said, Jose's second coming at Stamford Bridge has not been without blemishes of its own. He has whinged about his paucity of top-tier strikers and has fallen out at various times with Juan Mata, David Luiz and Ashley Cole. Even his golden boy, Eden Hazard, felt his ire when he was benched for a Champions League game after returning late to training from a trip abroad. But what has remained constant is the home-field dominance (the 3-1 hammering of United stretched Mourinho's unbeaten streak at Stamford Bridge to 70 games), the defensive tenacity and, of course, the mind games. "Manchester City, in terms of power of their squad, are in another dimension," he said Friday. "It would be my greatest achievement if we beat them to the title this year." And clearly Mourinho doesn't care how the Blues get there as long as they do. Unlike Arsene Wenger and Manuel Pellegrini, there's no hint of soccer romanticism in him.

He's just as content to grind out victories as he is to achieve them through silky passing and attacking flair. Yes, Roman Abramovich has made no secret of wanting Chelsea to display a more eye-catching style this season, but the Russian looked as happy with his team on Sunday as he did a few months ago when he dropped a tidy $75 million on his New York pied-à-terre, a cozy little eight-bedroom, 10-bathroom, one-ballroom Fifth Avenue apartment. That salon, as I understand it, is for when Mourinho's ego stops by to visit.

While Abramovich has been busy converting rubles into U.S. dollars, Mourinho has been banking on his traditional gold standard: defensive solidity. Chelsea's first-choice back four of Branislav Ivanovic, Cahill, John Terry and Cesar Azpilicueta were a tower of strength and authority. They were particularly dominant in the air, as United strangely kept flinging crosses into the box for the taller and brawnier Blues defenders to cut out.

Only 18-year-old wonder boy Adnan Januzaj caused them any real problems in the first half, popping up all over the field and fearlessly running at the Chelsea rearguard without going down from a blast of fresh air. But it was Eto'o -- the soccer relic adjudged by many to be a panic Mourinho buy when the two offers for Rooney were rejected and Jose had myopically loaned Romelu Lukaku to Everton -- who proved to be the difference. Until Sunday, the Cameroonian had shown but glimpses of his old fox-in-the-box form -- two goals against Schalke in the Champions League, a third against Liverpool -- but against United, he provided a VCR-worthy highlight reel of the qualities that had made him one of the most lethal poachers in the modern game. A three-time Champions League winner with Barcelona and Inter Milan (under Mourinho), he may have lost a yard or three of pace over the years, but his preternatural sense of opportunism remains undiminished. If his opening goal was slightly fortuitous, his second was a piece of exquisite anticipation, as he stole into the box in front of a bear-hugging Patrice Evra to poke de Ball past de Gea. Coming as it did on the stroke of halftime, the goal demoralized Moyes' men, and they hung their heads as they trudged to the locker room. At the bar of the Football Factory, United fans radiated frustration with Moyes and his team. "We used to be a big club under Ferguson," said FF's bartender and lifelong United supporter Jack Keane. "Now, we're a punch line." Then, looking out at an overflow crowd of well-lubricated Chelsea and United supporters who were packed together tighter than the euros in Wenger's wallet, he added, "I just hope somebody doesn't do something stupid." The fuse was lit when Eto'o completed his hat trick four minutes after intermission, bundling home the rebound from a free Cahill header that de Gea could only parry. "If you hate Man United, clap your hands," the giddy Chelsea mob bellowed as the simmering tension in the room boiled over. Someone threw a beer (if it was a Stella, I'm filing a complaint for criminal mischief), another dolt threw a punch and dozens of grown men were pushing and shoving one another within their allotted 18 millimeters of personal space. Mercifully, order was quickly restored, and for the rest of the game Chelsea dropped down a gear -- the Blues even generously allowed a late consolation goal -- so as not to further endanger Moyes' job. After all, it's in Mourinho's interest to keep him flailing about at United as long as possible. By the final whistle, the Smug-O-Meter of the Chelsea fans was off the charts. "Can we play you every week," they chanted, but the United rabble were too emotionally spent, not to mention pickled, to engage in any more shenanigans.

"Moyes better do some brisk business in the transfer window this month," said one Manc on his way out of the bar. "The problem is, what top player is going to want to play in the Europa League next season?" At least it won't be Mourinho's problem.