As Jose Mourinho strode out of his old stomping ground on Sunday after a performance synonymous with his ‘can’t win, don’t lose’ mentality, so the title race mind games began.
‘We are not even in the race. We are not a horse,’ the Tottenham boss asserted, fooling nobody. ‘I don’t know what the word is. We are the small, young horses. We are just a pony.’
Now, eagle-eyed Mourinho fans – does this sound familiar? Because he has used the horse-race analogy before, in playing down his team’s aspirations of becoming Premier League champions.
Jose Mourinho claimed after his side drew to Chelsea that they were a ‘pony’ in the title race
Tottenham and Chelsea played out a goalless draw at Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon
In February 2014, during the Portuguese’s second stint as Chelsea manager, his side had just claimed the scalp of Manchester City at the Etihad, in what was described by Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler as a ‘Mourinho Monday night masterclass.’
So, was this Chelsea side at the beginning of their development suddenly title contenders, two points off then-leaders Arsenal? Oh no, not according to Jose.
‘The title race is between two horses and a little horse that needs milk and needs to learn how to jump,’ he said.
‘Maybe next season we can race.’
Now, let’s be frank. No one believed Mourinho then, and no one is believing him now. Throughout his 20-odd years at the top of European football, his teams have always been title challengers – and anything less than first-place is, deep down, deemed a failure.
As Patrick Vieira, a former player of Mourinho’s at Inter, once quipped, beyond any sort of playing style: ‘His philosophy… is winning.’
But is their merit to Mourinho’s underplaying attitude this time round – and was there merit six years ago?
In that 2013-14 season, at the point of Mourinho’s horse-related comments, his side had just pulled off one of the performances of the season, in shutting up shop at City and clinching a 1-0 victory on the road.
Mourinho used a similar analogy when describing his Chelsea side in the 2013-14 season
It was vintage Mourinho, and not too unlike his Tottenham side’s performance at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, aside from a breakthrough in attack.
But, as he took the pressure off his players in the aftermath by stating he did not believe they were challengers, so his pessimism largely proved accurate.
As his Chelsea side progressed to the Champions League semi-finals, their league form fluctuated, and a 2-1 defeat at home to lowly-Sunderland in mid-April made the gap to City and Liverpool at the top too big to overcome.
That being said, one week later, something of a reserve side spoiled the party at Anfield, in one of Mourinho’s most famous displays.
A match remembered for Steven Gerrard’s slip and Demba Ba’s goal at the Kop end saw Chelsea claw back into the title race – though ultimately, it would be Manuel Pellegrini’s City who would emerge victorious on the final day of the season.
But what is more pertinent is Mourinho’s comments of ‘next season we can race’. More than race, Chelsea stormed to the Premier League title in 2015, by an eight-point margin to second.
His reserve Chelsea team crashed the party at Anfield in April 2014, beating Liverpool 2-0
The Portuguese celebrated passionately in front of the Blues fans, with the title race wide open
So, from that example in 2014, does Jose have a point this time round? A similarly open title race seems set to materialise, that’s for sure.
Perhaps though, Tottenham are still a step behind frontrunners Liverpool. And perhaps Manchester City. Though 10 games in, he’s got a side who sneaked into the Europa League on the final day of last season fervently believing in their own ability now.
As ex-Spurs boss Tim Sherwood recently ascertained: ‘Jose has brainwashed his players to believe they have to work to achieve something – they need to win trophies, this group of players.
‘When you play as solid as they do, he’s almost brainwashed them into believing, and why wouldn’t you believe in him?
‘He’s won 20 major trophies in his career and you’re winning football matches, so then you start believing that this guy is the real deal, he knows what he’s talking about, and why can’t we win the league?’
Former Spurs boss Tim Sherwood (left) believes Mourinho has ‘brainwashed’ his players
Despite Mourinho’s comments, Tottenham have started strongly and are title contenders
That latter point, beyond all else, is the key. We’re not even a third of the way through this season, so talk of a major Liverpool decline and City being out of the picture are far-fetched.
So, are table-toppers Tottenham the leading contenders for the Premier League? No, probably not. But are they simply contenders for the title? Most definitely.
Jose’s horse has burst out of the traps – and despite his facade in front of the cameras, he’ll be desperate they don’t fall at any fences as the race progresses.