Football: Post-Mourinho era at Chelsea overshadows title tilts

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho taking his seat for a match against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane in London on Nov 29.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho taking his seat for a match against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane in London on Nov 29. PHOTO: EPA

LONDON (AFP) - Jose Mourinho's abrupt departure from Chelsea has put the crisis-torn champions' clash with Sunderland on Saturday (Dec 19) firmly in the spotlight on a weekend that would otherwise have been dominated by Premier League title tilts.

Mourinho will be gone but not forgotten at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea's players and fans get the chance to respond to the polarising Portuguese coach's sacking.

Dismissed on Thursday just days after a 2-1 defeat at Leicester left the Blues languishing one point above the relegation zone, Mourinho had apparently lost the support of a significant section of the Chelsea squad.

Suggestions that several players, Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic reportedly among them, had grown unhappy as a result of feeling the lash of Mourinho's acerbic tongue were substantiated by Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo's talk of "palpable discord between the manager and players".

Mourinho had claimed after the Leicester loss that he had been "betrayed" by his players and, with that in mind, it will be fascinating to see how Chelsea's underachieving stars perform now.

There will be also be plenty of focus on the Stamford Bridge stands, where Chelsea's fans had remained loyal to Mourinho right until the bitter end.

Even at Leicester they were chanting his name and their reaction during the Sunderland game will show whether Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich's move has the support of the masses.

Abramovich was said to be keen to secure an interim replacement for Mourinho in time for Sunderland, with Dutchman Guus Hiddink - who has already successfully performed the same role at Chelsea for three months in 2009 - high on his shortlist.

But regardless of who is in charge this weekend, Chelsea can ill-afford a 10th league defeat of the season, especially against a Sunderland side only three points behind them, as the west Londoners aim to climb away from the relegation zone.

"I cannot explain why consistency has been so difficult to achieve. I don't know what happened to us against Leicester," Matic said.

"In the game against Porto, a very good team, we played very well, we scored two goals and created chances, but we were like another team on the pitch against Leicester."

Mourinho's exit has overshadowed a big weekend in the title race as second-placed Arsenal host third-placed Manchester City on Monday, while surprise leaders Leicester travel to Everton on Saturday.

Arsenal are two points behind Leicester and one ahead of City and a victory over Manuel Pellegrini's side would be the perfect boost heading into the busy Christmas programme.

The Gunners' chances of beating City would be greatly improved if Chile forward Alexis Sanchez is fit to feature after a hamstring injury and boss Arsene Wenger is cautiously optimistic.

"Maybe there is a slight chance for Alexis to be in the squad again, but it is too early to be sure about it," Wenger said.

City seem more likely to have a key figure back in time for the Emirates Stadium showdown after Argentina striker Sergio Aguero, who has missed the last four games in all competitions, returned to full training on Wednesday following a heel problem.

Aguero's return would be timely for City boss Manuel Pellegrini, who once again had to endure speculation this week that Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola is being lined up to replace him at the end of the season.

Guardiola has long been a target for Chelsea and has also been linked with fourth-placed Manchester United, whose manager Louis van Gaal desperately needs a win against struggling Norwich on Saturday to silence the critics of his conservative tactics and keep pace with the leaders.

But, with just one defeat from 16 league matches, Everton manager Roberto Martinez insists overhauling Leicester will be easier said than done for all their title rivals.

"Leicester deserve to be top of the league," Martinez said. "I think Claudio Ranieri deserves all the credit for developing the belief in that team.

"Of course they are title contenders. I don't see why they shouldn't be. It's not because they are top of the league, it's because they've been so competitive in every game."