THROWBACK: MR. MOU, THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE, THE EPL BEING A DIFFERENT KIND OF ANIMAL AND REDEMPTION

By Bamidele Salako

The Special One

In every war of attrition, battle of wits, battle for supremacy, or any battle of any kind, war strategists have often deployed to great effect, the dual strategy of concealment and the element of surprise.

A classic case of the element of surprise played out ever so grandly in December of 218 BC at the Battle of the Trebia – the first major battle of the Second Punic War fought between Carthaginian forces led by Hannibal and the Roman Republic forces led by Roman Consul, Tiberius Sempronius Longus. The Roman army had the numerical advantage with 42, 000 men, 12, 000 men stronger than the Carthaginian forces which numbered 30, 000; but Hannibal was a strategist who understood the immense value of the element of surprise.

In hostile weather conditions – blistering winter to be precise – Hannibal provoked the headstrong Tiberius to send his men through the chilled winter waters of the river Trebia as snow and ice-cold rain poured from the skies. He had made his brother, Mago set up ambush in a place well suited for ambuscade where they fed, rested and warmed themselves in readiness to take an unsuspecting charging Roman army by surprise.

On the fateful day, a division of Hannibal’s army proceeded to taunt and tease the Roman army with the intention to lure them into the ambush. The Roman army blindly obliged. Even though they were chilled, had not had breakfast and could hardly hold their weapons, they charged through the river in blistering snow and like a bolt out of the blue, Hannibal’s men attacked them from ambush and dealt a fatal blow that led to the crushing defeat of the Roman forces with only 10, 000 of a 42, 000 strong army able to escape the onslaught. The Roman Consul did not know what hit him and could hardly have expected the terror that fell upon his army and he paid a fatal price for being impetuous and for underestimating the capability of the enemy, while over-estimating the capability of his own army.

In the summer of 2004, when a fresh-faced Mourinho burst on the scene of the English game – fresh from a treble winning season in Iberia with Porto, no one really paid any serious attention or seriously considered that he would shake England to its very foundations and give the hegemonic duo of Sir Alex and Monsieur Wenger a run for their money; not with a second-rated Chelsea side that hadn’t mounted any serious title challenge or won a single trophy in years.

Prior to his arrival, the premier league title seemed the exclusive preserve of the elite duo of Manchester United and Arsenal – it was primarily a two-horse race every season, in the mould of today’s la liga. It was all about the Red Devils and the Gunners; the rest of the pack simply made up the numbers for the sheer purpose of having the semblance of a competition. The two dons had the premier league by the scruff of the neck and it wouldn’t be out of order to say they got comfortable and thought to themselves that it didn’t really matter who came from wherever, the premier league was always going to be theirs for the taking. What they didn’t know was that the new football loving owner of Chelsea FC and his new managerial recruit had other plans. They were going to deliver the Hannibal treatment to the hegemony.

Chelsea was no longer just going to make up the numbers – they were going to mount a title assault. It was going to take the billions of their Russian Oligarch and the tactical ingenuity of an imperious Portuguese to break the stranglehold of Chelsea’s two greatest rivals. It was a match made in heaven – the union worked such a delightful treat and completely changed the face of the English game as we then knew it. And guess what? The first competitive scalp claimed by Chelsea under their new manager was Sir Alex’s in a disconcerting 1-0 defeat at the bridge. Two more defeats on home soil in Manchester were to follow that season. Talk about the element of surprise! What those two didn’t realise was Mou was a different kind of animal – a scrupulous and meticulous coach who paid careful attention to detail, identified and achieved targets, impressed his assured personality and incurable winning mentality on his charges, motivated players to achieve set objectives and never took “no” for an answer, with the word “impossible” totally absent from his vocabulary. His remarkable success with an European second tier Porto side was indeed no fluke or a jumped-up achievement to be berated.

With his irresistible charm, strong and unyielding personality and an unapologetic winning mentality, Mou literally dragged legions of fans in countries with a passion for football, like Nigeria, to Chelsea. Unnoticed at first, the manager and his troops simply went about their business blowing teams away in that glorious first season. His blue army featuring a bewildering array of talents (Drogba, Gudjohnsen, Robben, Joe Cole, Damien Duff, Lampard, Makelele, Carvalho, Terry, Gallas, Cech etc etc) recorded a massive record points haul in the EPL – still unmatched till date – conceded the least amounts of goals ever in the premier league era, sealed the league with games to spare, won the Carling cup, came agonisingly close to making the final of the champions league but got knocked out in controversial circumstances by Liverpool, stopped one game short of equalling the season-long unbeaten record of Arsenal’s Invincibles set only a season before. It was simply brilliant stuff!

It was like the might of Rome in its halcyon days rummaging through the globe in all its glory, breaking down resistances and taking over territories – here’s the catch – the blues under Mourinho, aided by the billions of Roman Abramovich, actually earned themselves the moniker “Roman Army” and they overran virtually any club that stood in their way. That was Chelsea’s golden age – and almost every season after has come with another addition to the trophy cabinet – long even after Mou departed. Chelsea became a super-power in the footballing world.

Fast forward to summer 2013 and there’s trouble in paradise. The Roman army has come up against very tumultuous times since their Portuguese gaffer left the helm. Yes, the trophies have kept coming – but fact remains that most of those trophies have been won by caretaker managers than actual managers with actual long term contracts – the latest been the Europa League triumph masterminded by perhaps football’s most maligned caretaker manager ever – Rafa Benitez. And like two lovers who fell apart and suddenly rediscovered why they fell in love in the first place, both parties are now beginning to recollect memories of the fond moments they shared as strong reports of a reunion continue to make the rounds.

With their respective relationships not working out as planned, both are now starting to realise that they were probably meant for each other after all and that rather than parting ways when they did, they should have stuck together and worked things out and given the Fergie-United marriage or the somewhat odd Wenger-Arsenal one, a run for their money.

Truth is, when Mou does return to England, he will have to come to terms with one reality if he must succeed. He must face up to the fact that the premier league is just a different kind of animal than the one he left five years ago. He must never allow himself to fall under the illusion that success will be served up to him on a platter simply because he’s back at the club where he is worshipped like a god, even though that may prove to be a strong contributing factor to his success when he does makes his much talked about second coming.

Fact is the current EPL is a monster he and his soon-to-be boss helped create – a fiercer, stronger, more competitive, more technical, more demanding premier league where winning isn’t everything but the only thing that matters to most club owners and fans. You’ve got more billionaires investing in teams like Manchester City and you’ve got more top managers and top players at the top five-six clubs vying for the title.

Coming from a rocky three year relationship with an insatiable and discontented rich and spoilt Spanish girlfriend in Real Madrid, Mou’s impending reunion with his rich and haughty English ex-wife may, on the surface, appear to offer some reprieve, but with her comes a very impatient and domineering father-in-law in Roman who hates to be crossed and hates to lose – a man Mou knows quite well.

The stakes are higher this time for him because unlike the first time when he took virtually everyone by surprise, everyone now sort of knows what to expect and then there’s the pressure to perform and deliver. A self-confessed worst ever season at Madrid has already called the master tactician’s ability to question, with many wondering if what we witnessed this season in Spain and in Europe was not the utter and final demystification of Mourinho. But you never can tell what a glorious second coming may bring – perhaps – redemption! And where better for the special one (or is it, the only one?) to seek and gain redemption, than the place where the legend of Jose Mourinho was first forged – at Albion – Stamford Bridge.

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