James Lawton: Mourinho delights with grace of old in moment of anguish

Gone was the rancid self-pity, the ego-stroking and the dubious put-downs
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Something astonishing happened in Europe this week. So amazing, in some ways, it surpassed even Rafa Benitez's intelligent and hugely rewarded handling of Liverpool's supposedly benighted approach to the Nou Camp.

It was Jose Mourinho taking his latest body blow, the new injury crisis of John Terry, and then producing a masterclass of post-match football analysis. This, quite simply, was the best of Mourinho: bright and hard as a diamond, expressive, impassioned and - sing it to the heavens - exceedingly generous to his old Porto team.

Gone was the rancid self-pity, the gratuitous ego-stroking, the snide and dubious put-down of the opposition. In its place: a detailed, and notably unpatronising, report on the difficulties of his night from the moment Terry went down.

Mourinho said it ravaged his gameplan but he was delighted with the response of his players, notably Andrei Shevchenko, who scored the equalising goal in the 1-1 draw so sweetly he looked again one of Europe's top assassins, and Arjen Robben, who Mourinho pointed out picked up his hamstring injury because he had no time to warm up before rushing into a radically changed formation - one in which the power of Michael Essien in midfield was again surrendered in favour of fire-chasing duties in the middle of defence.

No doubt there was a sub-text, but that was part of the service - and the fun - of a Mourinho who was reminding some of us of the enthusiasm he created when he first arrived here from his triumph in Porto. This was someone who would challenge the iron grip of the Ferguson-Wenger duopoly. He had youth, style and outrageous ambition. He was amusing, too.

This week Mourinho didn't skirt the fact that Chelsea's recent reluctance to return to the market has again left him critically exposed in central defence. But none of the points were laboured, not even the central one that despite the lack of anything like an appropriate replacement for his most important player, Chelsea had just had a successful night in Europe, were in the final of the Carling Cup, the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and still within striking distance of Manchester United at the top of the Premiership.

Can Mourinho, as a parting gift to his disaffected patron Roman Abramovich, deliver an unprecedented four trophies? The possibility has softened in United and Arsenal hearts with Terry's latest mishap, but, interestingly, some bookmakers have been slow to react. Chelsea remained 7-2 favourites for the Champions League yesterday morning, the same as before Terry's scream of anguish in Oporto, compared to, respectively, 5-1 and 9-1 against this week's European winners, United and Liverpool.

They are plainly good value, though whether they remain so over the next few weeks as Terry starts another fitness race, is now the most critical question of the season.

What seemed clear enough on Wednesday night was that Mourinho had plainly recovered his composure - and his edge - after what had seemed to be a draining breakdown in relations with the oligarch.

Compared to the man who in recent years had most challenged his self-belief - and his professional integrity - Barça's Frank Rijkaard, Mourinho looked still a master of his trade. The Dutchman, by comparison, appeared at his wits end as Liverpool, much inferior technically but operating on an entirely different level of professional honesty, exposed all the flaws that have accumulated this season in the approach of the reigning European champions.

Long before the end, Rijkaard was simply throwing talent on to the field and hoping that something positive - or fortunate - might just emerge. Because of that level of talent - and the possibility that Samuel Eto'o will be re-embraced before the second leg at Anfield, Rijkaard and Barça cannot be entirely discounted.

Certainly, given the number of times Liverpool surrendered the ball while under little pressure, they can scarcely afford to see "scissors feet" Momo Sissoko lose his fight to recover from a late injury.

Understandably, Craig Bellamy and John Arne Riise won all the headlines with their remarkable transformation from karaoke squabblers to comrades impressively armed, but without Sissoko even their best efforts would probably have come to not so much. Sissoko hounded Barcelona a little further down the road to the ruin that can only follow the collapse of professional standards that has plainly come to the Nou Camp after their defeat of Arsenal in the final last spring.

Ronaldinho was a grave disappointment in last summer's World Cup and, as we feared, against Liverpool he could only provide new evidence of a badly faltering will - or, if not that, a cynical desire to make his rumoured departure at the end of the season something less than a cause for universal mourning along the broad avenues of a city that once embraced him so warmly. Ronaldinho's performance was so impoverished he appeared to have lost even the remnants of his old, puckish street-urchin charm.

What it all added up to was a most encouraging week for Premiership ambitions on the big European stage. Until recently hopelessly under-represented, despite the wealth of the league, English football is finally promising to consistently punch its weight in Europe for the first time since the prime of Liverpool's Bob Paisley.

For one week, at least, Arsenal's Arsène Wenger found himself outside the circle of Benitez, Sir Alex Ferguson and Mourinho but he too should recover his composure in the second leg against PSV, who despite their 1-0 victory remain at 40-1 to win the prize, a ranking at the betting window 26 points below the team they defeated in Eindhoven.

Certainly Benitez, Ferguson and Mourinho had reason to celebrate their progress, though the United manager was no doubt less than exhilarated by his team's showing in Lille. Ferguson handled the outrageous behaviour of the French bench with impeccable authority, not least when he commanded his captain Gary Neville to disentangle himself from a crisis inanely initiated by Lille's goalkeeping coach, but he cannot have been excessively encouraged by a team performance which lacked even one notable effort.

Of particular concern, surely, was Cristiano Ronaldo's disbelieving retreat from the field when a halt was called on his futile night's work. The most alarming thought was that he is beginning to believe some of his most outrageous publicity.

Meanwhile, Mourinho works to remind even his heaviest critics that however much he has besieged it from within, an outstanding football mind is still on the job. For his English-based rivals, nothing as remotely disturbing was encountered on foreign fields.

Comments