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Apr 21, 2014

Well wishes to Chelsea, despite ungracious Jose Mourinho

It may come as a surprise to Jose Mourinho to hear that this Sunderland supporter wishes Chelsea well in the first leg of the Champions League semifinal away to Atletico Madrid on Tuesday night.

Surely the red and white stripes of Atletico would have been enough to secure my allegiance, even without the aggravating features of Chelsea's rather charmless nature and the manager's sometimes sulky ways.

This was the man, the Special One, who opted for heavy irony when offering "congratulations" to Sunderland on beating his team 2-1 at Stamford Bridge: "it doesn't matter how or why, or in which way they won, but they won, they won the three points, and it's three fantastic points for them".

But no. There seems to me no need to be a rabid nationalist to want to root for a Premier League involved in European competition. I would go further: You can dislike, even loathe, this or that club in domestic leagues and still hope they may prosper when they alone fly the flag at the highest level abroad.

Chelsea fit snugly into that rationale more than any Premier side.

It will not cause Mourinho a moment's sleep, but this is not a club to which I could ever warm. Russian money has brought success but also a caricature of age-old swagger. Win or lose, I rarely enjoy a visit to Stamford Bridge or encounters -- selected friends apart -- with Chelsea supporters.

Other clubs have fans just as arrogant, ticket prices just as ferocious. Roman Abramovich is not the only moneyed, capricious owner in the Premier League. But as difficult as it may be to explain instinctive antipathy, try asking a neutral to be honest when answering this question: do you find Chelsea as appealing as, say, Arsenal or Liverpool, or even the two Manchesters? I do not believe there should be any need to bribe the opinion poll analyst.

Equally, however, it is possible to see Chelsea, whether in the hands of Mourninho or some other, causally discarded manager, as having been responsible for some of the most fluent football seen in the Premier in recent seasons. Yes, their players act as if instructed in training to fall over whenever a referee might be fooled into awarding a penalty or dangerous free kick. But that happens throughout modern football, to modern football's shame.

The Premier League title is not yet beyond Mourinho, though Sunderland's magnificent result at Stamford Bridge certainly makes it look more so than it was. And that is not something that displeases me.

When Arsenal were making all the running earlier in the season, I rooted for Arsene Wenger and his team because I admire him and the way he wants football to be played. Liverpool's emergence as strong title contenders surprised me as much as anyone but I'd now be delighted to see that great club restore past glories, and not merely -- as I noted when making similar points at Salut! Sunderland -- because my younger daughter has disloyally supported them since being swayed by John Barnes when all of nine years old. As for Manchester City, I find it hard to care either way.

But take any of those four clubs, add in Manchester United and even Tottenham Hotspur (though perhaps not Newcastle United) and you can generally expect me to support them in European competition. Without wishing to apply moral pressure, it's something that goes a long way back to Man Utd and the tragedy of Munich and, in particular, the impact of that awful event on a boy still at primary school.

However that sense of national commitment developed, I wanted Chelsea to beat Paris Saint-Germain, as I felt they would even after going down 3-1 in the first leg. I hoped Man Utd would somehow resist Bayern Munich while resigned to no such thing really being plausible. I was thrilled when Chelsea beat Bayern on penalties to win the 2012 Champions League. As a Sunderland supporter, I naturally found no difficulty in applauding a team that showed dogged defensive qualities against technically superior opposition. No less naturally, I held Abramovich in contempt when he rewarded Roberto Di Matteo by sacking him months after he had led the team to triumph in both the FA Cup and Champions League.

Mourinho cannot be blamed for that. And he returns to Madrid, as a former Real Madrid manager hoping to outwit the Spanish capital's other club, with my complete support as an Englishman supporting a nominally English club.