Maribor vs Chelsea: Jose Mourinho aims to turn up the volume in Champions League meeting

Special One backtracks on criticism of Blues fans ahead of key Champions League clash

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The Independent Online

No man is bigger than the football club, goes the saying, but with Chelsea sometimes you wonder. In the windows of Maribor radio station Radio City there is a life-size model of Elvis Presley, flanked by two life-size cardboard cut-outs of Jose Mourinho.

They are presumably there because Chelsea are in town, but you never know, they could be on permanent display. Certainly Mourinho has reached the status where the Slovenian media applauded him after last night’s pre-match press conference, apparently delighted just to be in his presence. He is also sufficiently exalted back at Stamford Bridge to have the audacity to question the volume of the fans’ support at the weekend.

The whirlwind Rafa Benitez would have reaped had he said the same during his time there does not bear thinking about, the criticism of Mourinho has been very restrained by comparison. Nevertheless, there have been some barbed responses and last night he backtracked… a bit.

“Maybe I go a bit too far, but I see myself in the stands watching Chelsea and I want to play,” he said, “I want to help. If I’m not a player I cannot play, if I’m not a coach I cannot make decisions, if I’m just a fan what can I do to help?

“Everybody at Chelsea knows how much I love the club. When everyone knows that I think a moment of criticism has to be analysed with different eyes, the eyes of somebody that knows why I come back to Chelsea, why I am here with my heart.”

Mourinho should have no complaints about the Chelsea fans on Wednesday night. Maribor is not the easiest place to reach from England. There are no scheduled flights to the city this time of year from anywhere, and only indirect ones are to Graz, an hour’s drive away across the Austrian border. Only hard core supporters, who tend to be very vociferous, are likely to be here.

NK Maribor would love 40,000 fans even if they were sitting on their hands with lips pursed. The attractive Stadion Ljudski Vrt hosts less than 13,000 but even that appears to be more than ample. On Saturday the defending Slovenian champions hosted the current league leaders, Domzale. Just 3,500 turned up. The ones that stayed away had their judgement proved right when Domzale scored in the fourth minute and held on for a 1-0 win. Nevertheless, the attendance underlined the imbalance that matches such as Wednesday’s represent as much as the 6-0 scoreline when the teams met at Stamford Bridge last month.

Many will expect a similarly facile victory for Chelsea which, if Sporting Lisbon fail to beat Schalke 04 in the Portuguese capital, will be enough to secure a place in the knock-out stages with two games to spare.

Both manager and defender Branislav Ivanovic cautioned against such a view. “The game we won 6-0 makes it harder for us tomorrow,” said Ivanovic. “It will be a different game to London. I’ve played here with Serbia. The atmosphere will be difficult.”

“A six-zero win is a fake situation,” added Mourinho, who missed celebrating his daughter’s 18th birthday to travel here. “Chelsea was ‘one chance, one goal’. Normally to score goals we need a lot of chances. I analysed Maribor against Sporting Lisbon and Schalke 04 and they are a good side.”

 

Maribor drew those group games 1-1, though both results owed much to 36-year-old goalkeeper Jasmin Handanovic - cousin of Internazionale keeper Samir Handanovic. They also beat Celtic to qualify, but the Scottish champions are not the force they were.

This is only Maribor’s first appearance in the Champions League group stages since 1999, and their second overall. They are the only Slovenian team to get this far and coming third in the group would be a heady achievement.

Chelsea’s team selection is likely to be dictated by the knowledge that they play at Anfield on Saturday morning, against a Liverpool team which rested players last night and has 24 hours extra rest. Mourinho muttered darkly about the fixture list - though any conspiracy is only in his head - but largely kept his own counsel preferring to gently chide Liverpool for not playing a full team against the European champions.

Speaking before the match in the Bernabeu, but clearly about it, he said: “If one day I go to a game and I don’t feel I can win, maybe I don’t go. So, normally, against the most difficult opponents, I will try to go with my best team. But who knows? Liverpool might play a fantastic match and win and rest players and the players are in great condition to play against Chelsea. In this case it might be a genius decision.”

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