While the club have their fourth manager since he left, the legacy of the Special One is clearly visible.
Chelsea are still Mourinho's team
History, Winston Churchill said, is written by victors. Well on course for his sixth league title in eight seasons, Jose Mourinho is accustomed to winning and, as his comments over the past week show, he is keen to safeguard his place in Chelsea's hall of fame. But the Inter Milan manager has an idiosyncratic take on most things and, without actually typing the words, he has contributed to much of the contemporary accounts of his career. It was Mourinho, in his first press conference at Stamford Bridge, who deemed himself the "Special One". The tag has stuck.
As the Portuguese prepares for his first reunion with Chelsea since his sacking in September 2007, the cult of Mourinho is about much more than a neat turn of phrase. Controversial and charismatic, Mourinho's methods were as integral as Roman Abramovich's money to the transformation of Chelsea. The complete rebranding of a club is a rarity; in the Premier League era, the only other comparable success occurred elsewhere in London, where Arsene Wenger re-invented the boring, boring Arsenal of George Graham as supreme stylists.
Mourinho inherited a club with a tradition of cup runs, but a record as serial nearly men in the league. He turned them into ruthless winners. His first season contained a solitary loss, his first two brought 186 points. Opponents weren't so much defeated as demoralised. A parsimoniousness in defence meant Chelsea conceded, on average, a goal every other game in his first 24 months in charge. Reminders of his ability have come from Mourinho himself. "It's no coincidence their decline happened after I left," he said. "They would have been better off sticking with me rather than changing manager when they did."
He is right, but an immodest assertion of his achievements is not necessary. Mourinho laid a template that still exists. He harnessed a group of strong characters into the most well-drilled side around. It may be unfair on his successor, Avram Grant, to suggest that Mourinho's side operated on autopilot even after his departure, but that was the impression left. What separated Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari from their predecessor were the analytical prowess to assess a game swiftly and make decisive substitutions and the with man-management skills required to deal with Didier Drogba and Co. Perhaps a large ego helps massage others.
None of the four men to follow in his footsteps - the other one being Guus Hiddink - have quite possessed the glamour of Mourinho, who brought a touch of Hollywood to the Cobham training ground. Carlo Ancelotti may be Alec Baldwin to Mourinho's George Clooney, but he does not share the younger man's fondness for the camera. What he has done is opt for continuity on the field. As the Inter manager noted, nine of the likely starters date back to his era, with Nicolas Anelka and Branislav Ivanovic the comparative newcomers. Six of those nine were recruited in the Portuguese's time and, of the three exceptions, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Petr Cech all produced the finest form of their careers for him.
The probable system, 4-3-3, is the formation Mourinho favoured, the alternative, with a midfield diamond, his other choice. "A team without secrets for me," is how he described it. There should not be any: his DNA is there. It is true that Ancelotti has made them bolder - wherever the destination of the Premier League title, the class of 2010 should outscore the champions of 2005 and 2006 - but Mourinho did not deal in thrashings.
Some suggested the post-match interviews were more entertaining than the games, but his side rarely required a third or fourth goal. "Let's see if Ancelotti can finish at Chelsea with as good a record as mine," was one jibe. A sense of mischief was apparent in many of his utterings, diversionary tactics and conspiracy theories in others. They forged the image, but the team he constructed is almost intact. The footballing legacy is there for the man who is keen to ensure he is not forgotten. "I'm a big part of Chelsea's history forever," he said. Forever is a long time, but when the side he masterminded meet the one he manages, Chelsea's past and present will collide.