James Lawton: Overtures to Jose Mourinho show Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is finally learning
It is hard to imagine advice that would send Chelsea on any path but Mourinho's
Whatever Roberto Di Matteo achieves at the Nou Camp tonight – and, despite what some dreamers will try to tell you, beating Barcelona would fall some way short of the last word in football fantasy – he will surely not be amazed to read that the oligarch will put up £25m for the return of Jose Mourinho to Stamford Bridge.
One valuable point about Di Matteo these last few extraordinary weeks has been his indisputable presence in the real world, something that could never be claimed on behalf of his ill-starred predecessor, Andre Villas-Boas.
The results include some remarkable side-effects for both Chelsea and the temporary manager. Most importantly, the club has been stabilised to the point where still highly effective players now know from one match to the other what they will be doing at game time and which set of tactics they will be following.
Though a routine situation in most successful clubs, for weather-beaten old pros like John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and, supremely, Didier Drogba, it must be pretty close to a born-again experience.
For Di Matteo, the advantage, having been around the block a few times as both a player and a coach, is that the only reward he is realistically pursuing, with the assurance of maximum support from some extremely experienced and still impressively accomplished players, is a sharp upgrading of his personal portfolio.
Could he possibly be surprised that Roman Abramovich, having once been advised that Mourinho had taken on too much power and glory for himself, is now all but persuaded that he has no alternative but to go back to the Special One?
Not, surely, if he wants to build on his reputation for a shrewd appreciation of both his own situation and those of all around him.
What, after all, can the oligarch lose by such a move? There would be two huge and immediate pluses.
First, Abramovich would be saying that after all the years of hit-and-miss, all the accumulated evidence that he had failed to learn some of the fundamentals of organising a consistently successful football club, he had finally been touched by a sense of his own folly. Second, he would be re-investing in a football man who is so very close to proving himself the most phenomenal winner in the history of the European game.
His defeat of Barcelona at the Nou Camp on Saturday night has almost certainly delivered the Spanish title – and the extraordinary personal record of winning league titles in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain. It also sharply lowered the odds on his winning the unique distinction of three European Cup triumphs with three separate clubs, as well as joining the late Bob Paisley on the all-time mark of three wins.
This is so much more than the streak of a genius in the art of self-aggrandisement. It is the irrefutable proof of someone utterly at home with the challenge of making a winning team in almost any circumstances, which would be a feat remarkable by any standards but is made nothing less than freakish when you set it against his hapless attempts to become a professional player.
Before tomorrow night's second-leg duel with Bayern Munich, when a 1-0 win by Real would be enough, Mourinho can already luxuriate in the distinction of being one of just three managers to win the great prize of Europe with different clubs. The others are the Austrian Ernst Happel (with Feyenoord in 1970, and Hamburg in 1983) and the German Ottmar Hitzfeld (Borussia Dortmund in 1997, and Bayern Munich in 2001.)
Any step beyond such a small, charmed circle would be impressive – that the one which now beckons Mourinho might come at the expense of Barcelona, probably the most lauded team in the history of club football, surely brings a touch of the surreal. Yet with around £1bn already invested in his European Cup ambition, it is hard to imagine any down-to-earth advice which would send Abramovich in any direction but Mourinho's.
Some say the move would involve too much lost pride but do you get to be one of the richest men in the world without recognising and learning from the worst of your mistakes? It is not likely. The same is surely true of the owner of a successful football club.
For Abramovich, now the fever centres around the chances of Di Matteo moving beyond a magnificent, perhaps even transforming, holding operation and reaching out for the Champions League success which has always been at the heart of the owner's football ambition. It presents a dilemma guaranteed to remind any man that owning a substantial part of the world is never guaranteed to make it any less complicated.
The best guess here is that Chelsea's unlikely run to glory will end, not without some fighting distinction, at the Nou Camp tonight, when Lionel Messi will be re-animated sufficiently to restore some old uncertainties and have rather more to say than some fractious words to the referee. However, there are other suspicions.
They include one that says Cristiano Ronaldo will be the driving force of Real's victory over Bayern at the Bernabeu and another that Jose Mourinho soon enough will have both La Liga and his third European title to underwrite the belief that football has never known such a man for all seasons and all places.
That Stamford Bridge will again figure on his itinerary seems to go beyond mere speculation. It is, after all, a rare piece of unfinished work for a man of apparently unlimited destiny.
Hamilton's fighting talk rings hollow in Bahrain
Lewis Hamilton said it wassoul-destroying and Jenson Button, normally one ofFormula One's more phlegmatic figures, gave his own harrowing account of how it was in Bahrain, where they found the dead protester on a roof riddled with security-force gunshots and the motif of the Grand Prix was a burning tyre.
Button told us: "I'd been playing with my brake bias, getting the rear tyres to work and the Kers [Kinetic Energy Recovery System] and just got everything right and have Paul [Di Resta] lined up to pass with the DRS [Drag Reduction System], when I felt the puncture. Oh, and I also had a problem with the exhaust just before the puncture. This year it seems I have one good race, one bad one, one good one, another bad one."
What Hamilton found so soul-destroying was a rear-wheel problem that cost him time and places on his first stop and then found, after fighting back, that he was losing ground again on his second stop when the threads on his left rear wheel cross-threaded. "You have to sit there watching people go by but I never gave up the fight."
Very commendable, too – it may even have been fascinating in another time and another place, one where a phrase like "never giving up the fight" has a rather different connotation.
Rooney and Aguero also worthy of recognition
No complaints about the player of the year award for Robin van Persie, who played such a conspicuous part in renovating what threatened to be such a ruin of Arsenal's season.
However, there is a certain bias in this quarter towards players who see the job through at the very sharpest end of the competition.
As this season moves towards its climactic phase, it is certainly impossible not to recognise the efforts of the men who will carry so many hopes into Monday's Premier League showdown at the Etihad Stadium.
Despite a disciplinary squall or two, Wayne Rooney has been quite relentless in maintaining Manchester United's challenge for a fifth title in six years – and from City's Sergio Aguero there has been a similar level of both application and brilliance.
Claims that the Premier League remains the best in the world have from time to time sounded hollow – but much less so when Rooney and Aguero have been about the most glorious of their work.
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