By Christian Radnedge
LONDON (Reuters) - To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of Jose Mourinho's demise as a top level manager have been greatly exaggerated.
At least, that is how it appears as the Portuguese coach prepares his Premier League-leading Tottenham Hotspur side to face the club where he cemented his legacy as one of the greatest soccer managers of modern times.
Mourinho led Chelsea to their first league title for 50 years in his first season in England in 2005 and the west London club retained their crown the following season.
He returned almost 10 years later to win the Premier League again after trophy-laden stints at Inter Milan and Real Madrid.
However, he followed up acrimonious departures from Real and Chelsea with a fractious spell at Manchester United where he was derided for negative tactics and perceived as a coach out of touch with the type of modern football being successfully advanced by the likes of Pep Guardiola and Juergen Klopp.
Many eyebrows were raised when he was appointed Tottenham coach in November 2019, succeeding the hugely popular Mauricio Pochettino who had transformed Spurs into a regular Champions League club, with Premier League title tilts in 2016 and 2017.
But even though under the Argentine Spurs scaled new heights, such as reaching the Champions League final for the first time in June 2019, falling to Klopp's Liverpool, there was no silverware to back up Pochettino's reign.
Mourinho's appointment seemed designed to break the trophyless run at Tottenham since the 2008 League Cup.
It was a tough ask given that the club has a tight wage structure and struggles to compete with the financial might of the other top clubs in England.
Spurs were 14th in the league when Mourinho took over but are now top after nine games of a season in which the absence of supporters may have been a blessing in disguise.
Tottenham fans used to seeing a daring, attacking style of football may not have had much patience watching the deep-sitting, counter-attacking style of Mourinho's team but it has paid dividends.
Spurs only had three shots against Manchester City at home last weekend compared to 19 from Guardiola's side but won 2-0. They lead the table on goal difference from champions Liverpool.
The win over Mourinho's old nemesis Guardiola was mainly due to a disciplined and solid performance from every player that has become a staple of the team.
Indeed, Mourinho made sure to congratulate close-season signing Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg after the game with a gritted-teeth snarl and accompanying chest bump.
The whole squad appear to have joined the manager's cause in proving he is no football dinosaur.
"As players, we want to perform for him (Mourinho). He's created a fantastic atmosphere, a fantastic camaraderie in the dressing room," defender Eric Dier said after the City game.
"We all want to perform for him, and to anyone saying those kind of things, as players we want to prove them wrong for him, and I think we did that today."
Mourinho's cause has also been helped by his appearances in the Tottenham Hotspur 'All Or Nothing' series on Amazon Prime - clips from which have become popular social media memes.
The Portuguese has even taken to Instagram with aplomb, posting images either making fun of players, posing stony faced after a rare defeat, or fulfilling a bet of buying a leg of ham for Spanish left back Sergio Reguilon after the City win.
One of the most shared clips from the Amazon series was Mourinho telling his Spurs players that "teams of good guys, they never win" and that they would have to develop a much meaner streak to get over the line and win titles.
Many Tottenham fans have found their heads turned and have bought into Mourinho's methods, presumably tired of recalling that their last European trophy came in 1984 and their last domestic league title more than 20 years before that in 1961.
A list of final, semi-final and narrow league title misses have piled up since then and the craving for success has grown.
But Spurs now top the Premier League on goal difference ahead of champions Liverpool, are in the League Cup quarter-finals where they visit second-tier Stoke City on Dec. 23 and lead their Europa League group with the FA Cup still to come.
For a manager who thrives on confounding the doubters, Mourinho is galvanising a side whose underdog tag could be just the incentive they need to finally secure a trophy.
(Reporting by Christian Radnedgel; Editing by Ken Ferris)