A special letter to the Special One
Dearest Special One --
I know I haven't always been your biggest cheerleader over the years but I've got to say, you really impressed me on Saturday at Craven Cottage.
For the first 45 minutes, your team looked like it had left its confidence, verve and aggression in Istanbul, and you had every right to be in a hot funk. This was a game Chelsea needed to win to maintain your "We're just squatting in Man City's spot" lead atop the Premier League table and, by all reasonable measures, you should have had little difficulty doing so against an opponent speeding in the HOV lane toward relegation.
And yet such was the meekness of your Blues' performance that no one would have blamed you if you had turned up the hairdryer full blast at halftime and did your best Sir-Alex-after-losing-to-Arsenal-in-the-2003-FA-Cup impression.
Of course, you never do the expected, do you, Jose? That's what is so brilliant, if Machiavellian, about you. You think one thing and say another. Or in this case, you say absolutely nothing. You become the anti-Fergie, the Silent One.
Later, you told the press that this was the first time in your career that you had resorted to using the silent treatment and that the players were gobsmacked because, if anything, they are so used to you talking too much. Imagine how shocked Arsene Wenger, Rafa Benitez, Andre Villas-Boas, Manuel Pelligrini and Pep Guardiola would be to learn that you actually possess the ability to keep your mouth shut.
After all, you're the Lionel Messi of messing with people. So when you enter a locker room full of world-class players with their heads down in shame, you don't lose it and tear them a new one. No, that's what every Arsene, Andre and Manuel would do -- and what have they won lately? Oh right, Pellegrini's Man City won the Capital One Cup with a come-from-behind 3-1 victory over Sunderland. The Capital One Cup? Even the winners don't feel like climbing the eternal staircase to the royal box to claim that prize.
But you, Jose, are too smart to fall for the trap of chasing tin cups. Instead, you trust in your players' intelligence to know that by uttering nary a word, you are really speaking volumes about how poorly they performed in the first half.
And, needless to say (see, you inspire me!), you got the desired reaction: a full-blooded and dominating second-half display that saw your team steamroll Fulham 3-1. And in doing so, you went four points clear in the race for the Prem title, which, as far as I'm concerned, is now yours to hoist on the open-top bus parade through West London.
I realize I may be a tad premature in congratulating you on winning another Prem championship, but I really do believe that you bubble-wrapped the trophy with that second-half turnaround against the Cottagers.
How many league titles is that now? Three? Forgive me but I can no longer count much beyond zero, as the past couple of weeks have seen Bayern Munich and Stoke stomp two more Arsenal trophy hunts into scrap metal. Yes, I know City have two games in hand but they also have Martin Demichelis at the heart of their defense and as Fabio Borini proved on Sunday, you don't need to be Messi to make him look like he's wearing clown shoes.
Plus, by the time Man City plays again in the league (Hull on March 15) you should be nine points ahead (I'm spotting you a win against Spurs on March 8) and they will be feeling the pressure of that yawning gap.
I know, I know. Liverpool are now your closest rival, having leapfrogged Arsenal into second place on the back of a 3-0 thrashing of Southampton. But do you seriously believe that the Reds are capable of winning their last 10 games while you and Man City each lose one and draw another? Me, neither. So congratulations, Jose. You've mastermind-gamed the league again and you've done it in the tightest race in years.
Don't get me wrong. You've acted like a preening, egomaniacal prat on your way to another coronation even if, in the end, you turned out to be right about so many of the things we criticized you for. Calling Wenger a "specialist in failure" was a real cheap shot, even by my low standards -- granted, he hasn't won any silverware since the Paleolithic era but his record of 17 consecutive Champions League appearances is not exactly abject futility -- but, sure enough, it coincided with Arsenal's mini-collapse last month. (Although God knows the Gunners don’t need you to trigger a late-season implosion. The sight of the groundhog’s shadow usually does the trick.)
And you couldn't wait to re-ignite your long-running feud with Pellegrini, whom you had famously branded a "loser" for finishing second to Barcelona when you succeeded him at Real Madrid in 2010. Once you were back in England, you immediately lashed out at the Chilean for the ludicrous amount of money he spent to rebuild his Man City squad, even though you would lay out almost 10 times the amount Chelsea had paid for Nemanja Matic three years earlier in order to buy him back from Benfica.
But all those who scoffed at what they perceived to be your reckless spending missed the point. You got the player you needed to re-shape your team in your spiky, combative image. If only Wenger had been as bold and decisive about what he wanted, maybe Arsenal might not have had to rely on a raw and bewildered-looking 21-year-old Frenchman to try to save their season at Stoke. But then you have always been fearless when it comes to personnel moves. What other manager on earth would have parted ways with Juan Mata, Chelsea's Player of the Year the past two seasons? Yet for all the Spaniard's glorious skills and vision, you knew his lack of strength and speed made him a bad fit for your quick-breaking attack.
So you sold him to Manchester United in a gesture of noblesse oblige, as if to say "we have too many world-class midfielders and you have none, so here, be my guest." And, be honest, how thrilled are you that your old wine-drinking buddy Sir Alex didn't anoint you as his successor at Old Trafford, considering how the season has played out for poor David Moyes?
At Chelsea, you were handed a core of talented individuals and you've molded them into a title-ready team. In Eden Hazard, you already possessed the best midfielder in the league but it wasn't until you benched him for missing training that he truly flowered into the Prem's most dangerous attacker this side of Luis Suarez. The Belgian bought into your everybody-defends system so deeply that at Craven Cottage he was chasing down opponents in your own penalty area to try to win the ball back.
Despite your toothless three-headed striking monster of Fernando Torres, Samuel Eto'o and Demba Ba, you resisted the clamor to buy a proven goal scorer in the January transfer window and ended up looking like a tactical genius when the seldom-used Andre Schurrle bagged a 17-minute second-half hat trick to see Fulham off.
But perhaps your greatest feat this campaign was resurrecting John Terry's career to the point where he is once again -- and my God, it pains me to say this -- vile head and shoulders above every other defender in the league. Before you returned to Stamford Bridge, it looked only a matter of time until Terry's litany of transgressions would force Chelsea to finally unload their talismanic captain. But you knew that despite his crimes against human decency he could still be a commanding presence at the heart of your defense and you made him your eyes and ears on the field.
JT is, of course, a vocal leader, constantly bellowing instructions to teammates and referees alike. Until Saturday, you, too, were never at a loss for words. How ironic that in learning to keep it zipped for the first time in your career, you may have just won the title you spent the entire season talking down.
The Mustachioed One