James Lawton: Handshakes or not, Liverpool's evolution is getting right under Mourinho's skin

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It has been clear for some time that in style and good manners, and the refreshing capacity not to mistake even the most important football match for the outbreak of the Third World War, Rafa Benitez is a better man than Jose Mourinho. No doubt Mourinho could scarcely care less. Any man who has to ask, "Does it really matter if we shake hands?" - as he did at the weekend after a second successive refusal to extend the most basic of courtesies to the victorious Benitez - is not in danger of being weighed down by fresh charges that he is the worst of losers.

But here is a question that might just go under his skin as deeply as Benitez's lengthening list of Cup triumphs - and tactical tour de force - over the wealthiest club in football. It asks: does Mourinho take defeat by Liverpool so badly because it nags at an unspoken fear? Does he worry that Benitez is on his way to completing a body of work that will come to shine quite brilliantly beside his own increasingly laboured manipulation of infinitely greater resources?

It would be madness to attribute too much significance to Liverpool's win in the Community Shield, a curtain-raiser with a notorious reputation for falsifying the season's prospects, but then equally who could deny the possibility that at the very least it is was part of an unfolding pattern?

Benitez couldn't dream of acquiring players like Andrei Shevchenko and Michael Ballack this last close season, but he could, at a fraction of the price Mourinho paid for his two latest superstars, continue a reshaping, indeed a reclamation, of the team on which Gérard Houllier lavished so unavailingly more than £100m. He could tighten his defence, provide new width, draw from players like Craig Bellamy and Jermaine Pennant unseen levels of performance from outstanding but largely unrealised talent.

In two years Benitez has re-cast his team, won the Champions' League and the FA Cup - both at the expense of a Chelsea desperate to widen their aura beyond the trenches of the Premiership - and, now, at the dawn of a new season he has taken on a Chelsea of Shevchenko and Ballack, Lampard and Essien, Terry and Robben and drawn from Mourinho rather more than another unedifying display of gracelessness. He has, it is possible to suspect, provoked at least a small shiver of fear.

Benitez has suggested that maybe he has indeed found the measure of Mourinho's Chelsea and their stockpiling of the best available talent. Maybe he has noted that in Mourinho's coaching armoury there are many strengths - but not the most important one of all, the ability to mould a team over the years into a force of rising skill and confidence.

Yes, we know Mourinho exploited prodigiously the modest potential of Porto, led them to an unlikely Champions' League triumph. Yes, he powered Chelsea to their first Premiership title with a largely inherited team. But can we say that, with each megabuck signing, Mourinho's team have moved up a notch? Have their options increased? Have they exploited the width promised by the once luminous Arjen Robben, the scampering Shaun Wright-Phillips and the now departed Damien Duff? Has Michael Essien looked half the player for Chelsea he was for Ghana in the recent World Cup?

We also know that Mourinho's patron, Roman Abramovich, wants so much more than the merely efficient annexation of the domestic league. He was aghast at a second successive failure in the Champions' League, especially in the way of it. He winced as his hugely expensive team were not only beaten but outclassed, subjected to the game of a Barcelona that was made to look like a fantasy.

Abramovich wanted at least a little glamour for his money. So Shevchenko and Ballack came to Stamford Bridge, galacticos amid the infantrymen. Mourinho has to make it work; he has to provide new impetus, and genuine balance. With Ballack, Lampard and Essien all pure central midfielders, that last imperative will not be so easily met.

Meanwhile, the team of Mourinho's Cup-tie nemesis, Benitez, grows in confidence - and depth. Momo Sissoko was the man of the match at the Millennium Stadium, recalling the early, overwhelming days of Patrick Vieira at Arsenal. Sissoko has been groomed carefully by Benitez, who first signed the 21-year-old for Valencia.

There were times last season when Sissoko might have been christened "scissors-feet". His tackling was wild and when he had the ball it was more of a embarrassment than a prize, but his leg-span and his heart were enormous and Benitez insisted that soon enough he would be a major force in a new league in a new land.

There was more than a hint of this against Chelsea at the weekend. He will almost certainly never emulate Vieira in creative terms, but he has great potential to be a force of nature on the football field.

If it happens, it will be another indicator that Benitez has another gift of the best coaches, the power to teach. To be fair to Mourinho, there is no doubt Joe Cole, along with Lampard and Terry, has flourished under his command, but there is a point when a coach's motivational powers become less important than his knowledge of how to integrate individual talent properly.

This now is the huge challenge of Jose Mourinho. Mind games, however arrogantly conceived, are not likely to work too well with players of the authority of Shevchenko and Ballack. They have their contracts - and their reputations.

They have come to London to play in a coherent team, and if Shevchenko did benefit from one beautifully delivered pass by Lampard he will not have been overwhelmed by his experience in Cardiff. Liverpool had more balance, more unity, more ideas. They looked like a team who might just be about to leap forward. True to form, Benitez made no great claims for himself or his team. You couldn't project the course of a season on one charity game, he said. But you could see how hard Jose Mourinho took defeat and you could wonder, optimistically, about how many more times your hand would go unshaken.

Campbell relays rare honesty in a sport existing in constant denial

Some will say that the sprinter Darren Campbell took the line of least resistance by merely making clear his unease at having won the European Championships relay sprinting gold in the company of convicted drug cheat Dwain Chambers.

Better for him to have refused to run, they claim. But then Campbell has always spoken eloquently against cheating, arguing that its corrosive effect did not permit any compromise and, anyway, why should it be the innocent required to make the gesture of conscience?

The trouble is that there are no citizens above suspicion in the relentlessly murky world of track and field and if there was merit in Campbell's dismissive body language it was that the odd visitor from another planet who had been tuning into the BBC coverage might have discovered finally that there was a problem in a sport which lives mostly in a permanent state of denial.

However, even Campbell's position was a source of some confusion. One theory was that his mood had, in fact, been dictated by criticism of his mentor, Linford Christie, who was suspended for two years for a drug offence.

This contradiction apart, Campbell has certainly had the courage to speak out unequivocially in the past. He once broke out of the platitudes of a radio panel discussion with an unforgettable attack on the evils of drug-taking. He said it made a nonsense of sport - and his own life. It had to be cut away like a cancer. It corrupted everything, made it meaningless.

There were hints of that stance when he stepped, aloofly, on to the winners' podium in Gothenburg. He said he wasn't really in the mood for a team picture of unbridled team celebration. He couldn't be a hypocrite.

Unfortunately, Darren Campbell couldn't run beyond an uncomfortable truth. He had run with an athlete who, he believed, had lost his right to be part of his sport. It was a compromise no amount of negative body language could shake. Yet, the instinct here is not to be fiercely judgemental. Campbell at least was honest enough to say he had difficulty in living with a lie. In track and field this was rather more than an everyday confession.

Comments