James Lawton: Mourinho faces most fundamental test of his qualities as a winner... or a loser

Can Mourinho inspire Chelsea to match Barça stroke for stroke in the city of art?
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In the square beneath the dizzying spires of Antoni Gaudi's cathedral a group of Chelsea fans sip their beer with perfect decorum. But then they do not look up. They are rooted, it seems, at ground level in their allegiance to Jose Mourinho, a coach of formidable achievement but one who, it becomes a little more apparent each week, is addicted not to looking up but down.

Tonight at the Nou Camp, when the latest squall of controversy blowing around his Chelsea and Barcelona is put to one side, however briefly, we will maybe see precisely to where it has taken him.

This proud city, you can see in every corner of it touched by the spring sunshine, believes it is to a terrible denouement, a dramatic, rebuking statement about the meaning of football when it is shaped not merely for workaday success but greatness.

Certainly it is this belief that lies at the heart of the superb riposte to Mourinho's contention that Barcelona is merely a place of theatre. He made the point in the wake of his full-back Asier Del Horno's failed attempt to wipe away the danger of Barça's teenage virtuoso Lionel Messi at Stamford Bridge two weeks ago, and the Catalan response was wreathed in contempt. "Barcelona," it is said, "doesn't do theatre, it does art."

Nowhere, with apologies to Gaudi, is this achieved more persuasively than on the pitch of the Nou Camp.

It means that for Mourinho this is more than a football match. He confronts not only the most talented, expansive team in the world club game, but a warring ideology, a belief not in the power of one coach, however driven and able, and a mountain of roubles, but the continuity of some of football's best values.

Despite the striking success of the Barcelona coach, Frank Rijkaard, last season's brilliant La Liga title and the imminence of another one built on spell-binding football, there has been no disposition to declare himself a Special One? Why is he, in this, such a contrast to Mourinho?

The answer is in background... both his and his club's. Rijkaard appears so comfortable in his own football skin for the most compelling of reasons. While Mourinho failed the most basic tests as a professional player, Rijkaard inhabited the highest possible level for his clubs and his country. With Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit he was part of Milan's great European Cup-winning triumvirate, a superlative unit reinforced by the unique football heart and brain of Franco Baresi.

Then there is the background of Barça. It is one in which any excessive crowing over the triumphs of today would surely be seen as a lapse in taste.

In any ranking of the world's greatest players, Barcelona have had two in the top five, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff, a contender for the top 10, Luis Suarez, and - on view tonight - two more with the potential for the ages, Ronaldinho and Messi.

In a cafe on Las Ramblas an old man talks of Suarez. "For me he was the best," he says. "He was just electric." Suarez signed for his old Barça boss Helenio Herrera, the Black Magician, when he moved to Internazionale, but before he left a city in mourning he played in the European Cup final of 1961 in Berne against Benfica.

The previous season Barça had lost to the great Real Madrid in the semi-final; now against Benfica, they were betrayed by some catastrophic goalkeeping and trailed 2-1 at half-time, But in the second half Barça, inspired by Suarez, played astonishing football, hitting the bar and the post five times. But only one goal went in, and Barça, perversely, lost 3-2. However, one consolation was huge: it was the knowledge that beaten teams and football men can define themselves in defeat as well as victory, and this may be another lesson Mourinho may have to absorb at the Nou Camp in a few hours' time.

Not the least pressure against him now, whatever the smokescreens he seeks to create here, is the growing sense that for all his natural charm - in a personal context - he is indeed incapable of grasping the concept of honourable defeat. His reaction to recent reverses, his refusal to acknowledge defeat by Liverpool in last season's Champions' League semi-final, with his complaints about Luis Garcia's disputed goal untouched by any acceptance that had it not been allowed Liverpool would have been due a penalty and the dismissal of the Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech, have formed a grisly pattern, one only confirmed by his performance at West Bromwich last weekend.

In his standing in the game, it is far from ideal preparation for the huge test of grace and character - and tactical flair - that awaits him here tonight.

None of this, of course, impinges on the reality that he has fashioned, admittedly from more resources than any of his rivals, the strongest team in England, one whose second straight Premiership title has become an absolute formality. But his problem is that his horizons have been redrawn, utterly against his most confident expectations.

Europe was supposed to be a natural extension of his progress in the Premiership, but so far it has proved more a minefield for his vanity. Liverpool's Rafa Benitez, a profoundly different style of man, outwitted him last season in the Champions' League and that wound remains raw. Mourinho beat Barcelona in the previous round, but in ultimately dubious terms - he will probably never address the reality of Ricardo Carvalho's flagrant foul on Victor Valdes for the deciding goal - and now Barça rear up with what they believe is sweet vengeance in their hearts.

The huge question is whether Mourinho can hold on to that part of his mystique which has not yet been touched by his scabrous behaviour on the touchline and after games?

It is one that despite the odds against him tonight simply cannot be discounted.

When he won the Champions' League with Porto it was a success built on stupendous effort and attention to detail; Deportivo, before the rise of Rijkaard's Barça the most creative team in Spain, were expected to coast to victory in Coruña after holding Porto goalless in the first leg of the semi-final. But Mourinho's men played them into the shadows. Such a performance must come from Chelsea tonight, and if it does Mourinho will be confirmed in his status as, above all, an extraordinary motivator.

There is, however, another dimension and in the level of football we encounter tonight it may be the most vital one of all. Can Mourinho's Chelsea step beyond the restrictions imposed by his essentially conservative tactics? Motivation is fine, but it will be never be enough in itself - and nor is it enough to cite Chelsea's superior goals advantage in the Premiership. Wearing down outgunned opposition is one thing, pulling a goal back from a Barcelona capable of sublime flights of counter-attacking brilliance is something in an entirely more challenging category.

Whether he likes it or not Mourinho goes into tonight's game with the burden of proving that his team is about more than grinding efficiency; that players of the talent of Damien Duff and Arjen Robben can be released in the way Messi and Ronaldinho were at Stamford Bridge a fortnight ago. He also has to accept that however much censure was applied to some of the petulance and perspectives of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger, there was never any quibbling about the quality of the football their teams produced.

Now, against the extravagantly gifted Barcelona, Chelsea do have to make a move in that direction. They have to play in a way we haven't seen them do before. They have to take a chance or two. They have to trust in their talent. They have to grow as a team, one built not just for the fast track of the Premiership but the highway of football history.

That, after all is the proclaimed goal of Chelsea. They are the richest club in football but how aware are they of the true wealth of the game they play so relentlessly? Barça know that richness and they pursue it season in, season out.

It means that whatever the result, Barça will attempt to rekindle the memory of Suarez and Cruyff and Maradona. Will Chelsea do the same for Peter Osgood, and the best of their own tradition? Will they look up and see that brave message in the sky? If Jose Mourinho is ever to do it, this surely is the time.

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