JOSE MOURINHO, the Chelsea manager, believes Manchester United's hopes of a successful Barclays Premier League title defence are all but over following Chelsea's 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge.
It was a claim David Moyes later rejected, but yesterday's result leaves United in seventh place and 14 points adrift of leaders Arsenal. Chelsea - thanks to a hat trick from Samuel Eto'o - moved to two points off the top and a point behind second-placed Manchester City.
Mourinho believes Moyes will be unable to overturn the deficit to all three teams in the remaining 16 games of the season and that United will not be able to retain the title Sir Alex Ferguson won before his retirement in May. "It's a 14-point difference," said Mourinho. "And 13, and 12. Can they recover to one of these teams? They can. But to recover to three of them, it needs three teams to have almost a collapse. For the title it will be difficult for them. What I hope to do is they beat all of them [Chelsea's rivals] to finish top four and they beat all of them."
But the Chelsea manager insisted it was not just a race between Arsenal, City and Chelsea. "It's not just three," he said. "The distance is short. Six points from us to Liverpool. Six points to Tottenham. Tottenham are winning lots of matches, Liverpool too, and scoring goals. Everton, if they win tomorrow [at West Bromich Albion], they jump into that."
The victory saw Mourinho extend his home unbeaten Premier League run to 71 games with his 100th win in the competition, becoming the manager to reach the landmark in the shortest time. "I don't care about records," he insisted. "I want to win the next match.
"This was the last match, but it's quite a coincidence: the first [Premier League win] was against Man United, the 100th was against Man United. The previous owner of the record was Man United manager [Ferguson], so quite a coincidence.
"The important thing for me is that these 100 matches, they gave 300 points to Chelsea and especially today these three points are very important for us."
Mourinho will demand more from his side, who started the contest second best. "We have to improve," he said. "I want better. The first 20 minutes were not good. I want the game to be in our control since the beginning and it was not."
But he praised the character of his team to strike when the opportunity presented itself, unlike United. "They started the match better than us and they were a bit unlucky that we scored in that moment," Mourinho added. "When you are better than the opponent, you have to go and try to kill the game. For these 20 minutes they were better than us, but my team was compact, was solid, showed solidarity. And we controlled them. Normally we need four, five chances to score a goal. Today first shot, first goal, second shot, second goal. Things were going in our direction."
Moyes was bullish in defeat, despite his side slipping further behind the main contenders for the title. "We won't throw the towel in until we can't get there," the United manager said. "The job is to try and finish first. I will keep trying to do that. Before today we'd lost one in six in the league, and I didn't think there was a big difference between the teams today, not at all. The difference was our defending to set-pieces."
It was put to Moyes that his team were in crisis. Again, the Scot disagreed: "That's your opinion. Crisis is your word, not my word."
Moyes admitted he knew he was embarking on a "massive challenge" when he took the step up from Everton to United last summer. Some United fans wanted the man who was in the home dugout to succeed Ferguson due to his experience on the biggest stage. But Moyes still feels he is the man to turn things around.
"It's a difficult task, but [it's about] perseverance and keeping doing what's right," he said. "We have players to come back, and this is a project I know that I'm going to improve as it goes along. I was hoping to win more and be competing a bit more than we've been, but that'll come."