Jose Mourinho will return to his native Portugal on Tuesday aiming to kick start their Champions League campaign when his Chelsea side take on Sporting Lisbon. Chelsea’s European season began with disappointment two weeks ago when they allowed a 1-0 lead to slip at home to Schalke to take away just a single point. It may not be a group that is expected to give last year’s semifinalists major problems, but a win in the Portuguese capital would go a long way to ensuring Chelsea’s progress is smooth.
Chelsea’s start to the Premier League has certainly been impressive. The only points dropped so far have been at the home of champions Manchester City when conceding a late goal to former midfield great Frank Lampard. On Saturday they breezed past Aston Villa 3-0 to maintain a three point advantage at the top of the table. Once again at the heart of the win was Diego Costa, who took his tally since joining Chelsea from Atletico Madrid in the summer to eight goals in six starts. Yet Costa is also Chelsea’s biggest concern right now, with Mourinho again lamenting over the weekend his striker’s struggles to play two games in quick succession due to a hamstring problem. With a crucial Premier League duel against Arsenal coming up on Sunday, it was thought unlikely that Costa would start on Tuesday, but Mourinho has confirmed that he will be in the lineup, with the hope that he can recover in time for the weekend. Fellow striker Didier Drogba along with midfielder Ramires, have been left behind in London, however due to injuries.
One aspect of his team that particularly impressed Mourinho on Saturday was the midfield partnership of Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas. While Fabregas’ arrival, along with Costa, has heralded a big boost in Chelsea’s goalscoring ability, it has also played a part in a decline in the formidable defensive record produced in the second half of last season. Saturday’s victory brought to an end a run of five matches without keeping a clean sheet.
“They were fantastic in the way they moved the ball and their position when we didn't have the ball,” Mourinho said, according to Chelsea’s official website. “They were always in a good position to try to stop Villa counter-attacking, because we know they have good fast players on the counter-attack, so the team played really well.
“Villa have won two matches away from home, scoring one goal [in each]. If you want to win you have to have the ball but at the same time prevent the counter-attack from happening, keep a balance in the team. The way we positioned Matic and Fabregas we gave the team a good balance.”
Mourinho will be in familiar surroundings on Tuesday. It was at Sporting Lisbon 22 years ago where the Chelsea coach got one of his first big breaks in the game when he became interpreter for then Sporting coach Bobby Robson. Mourinho would later follow Robson to FC Porto and then Barcelona before beginning a management career that has so far yielded two Champions League titles.
Like Chelsea, Mourinho’s former club had a disappointing start to the Champions League group stage when conceding an injury-time equalizer to Slovenian side Maribor. It was a familiar tale for Sporting and new coach Marco Silva, who has begun his tenure by drawing five of his opening seven matches, all 1-1. Last Friday they again let a lead slip, this time against title rivals FC Porto.
Playing in the Champions League group stage for the first time in six years, Sporting can call upon a man who knows all about the competition and their next opponents. Nani is on a season-long loan from Manchester United and scored one of the penalties in the shootout victory over Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League final. The winger will be joined in the Sporting team by reported Arsenal and Manchester United transfer target William Carvalho and Algerian World Cup striker Islam Slimani.
Prediction: The presence of Costa in the starting lineup, providing he is fully fit, is a massive plus for Chelsea. In both matches where the Spain international has been missing this season Chelsea have suffered. Returning legend Drogba lacked sharpness and missed chances to seal victory against Schalke, while Loic Remy failed to show the same ruthless streak in a surprisingly narrow win over lower-league Bolton Wanderers in the League Cup last week. Costa’s presence in the starting lineup could be the difference between a victory and a second-straight draw for both teams.
Sporting Lisbon 1-2 Chelsea
Kickoff time: 2.45 p.m. EDT
TV channel: Fox Sports 2, ESPN Deportes