Nick Townsend: No cavalier, but Mourinho may still be laughing

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The Independent Online

Thirty years ago and more, on raw, raucous European nights, The Shed at Stamford Bridge was the preferred vantage point for Blues aficionados who craved not so much a successful team, but one imbued with an ostentation. The panache and vibrancy immortalised by Osgood, Cooke and Hudson was reinforced, in the pugnacious physiques of Webb, Harris et al, by an ability to mix it with the spite of the Continent's most cynically malevolent performers. Dave Sexton's team were to be admired for their aesthetic superiority, although trophies, both the FA Cup and European Cup-Winners' Cup, did materialise as well.

Thirty years ago and more, on raw, raucous European nights, The Shed at Stamford Bridge was the preferred vantage point for Blues aficionados who craved not so much a successful team, but one imbued with an ostentation. The panache and vibrancy immortalised by Osgood, Cooke and Hudson was reinforced, in the pugnacious physiques of Webb, Harris et al, by an ability to mix it with the spite of the Continent's most cynically malevolent performers. Dave Sexton's team were to be admired for their aesthetic superiority, although trophies, both the FA Cup and European Cup-Winners' Cup, did materialise as well.

Now, post-Ken Bates, post-Hillsborough, and in the period of the Roman (Abramovich) occupation, the virtues of comfort and safety are paramount at the Bridge. Today The Shed, on the site of that notorious terracing, is a restaurant beneath a swish hotel. Inside the stadium is accommodation so uniform you are hard-pushed to identify which side of the ground you are seated in. Passion is the fruit which comes after the main course in corporate hospitality.

Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, once a club whose misadventures at times resembled those of supporter Michael Crawford's comic creation Frank Spencer, are taken seriously. As title contenders, as potential Champions' League victors, both competitions requiring a pragmatism and consistency which Sexton's men could not have contemplated. That minor matter of £200m invested by Abramovich in personnel during his stewardship may have decreed that such change was inevitable. But expenditure has never been a guarantor of success. Not at this élite level.

Mourinho's silent assassins go about their business, as his former club Porto discovered on Wednesday, in such a manner that you barely notice their presence. Mourinho may, through the line of succession, have inherited something of the braggadocio that Sexton's team espoused and his fine tactical nous, but little else.

There is, however, an ominous look to this Chelsea, one redolent of Mourinho's Porto last season, which for all the commotion regarding the R-word at Old Trafford the preceding night, and Arsenal's presence, convinces you that this club can emerge as England's most potent source of European triumph. As Porto's South African striker Benni McCarthy reflected after his side's 3-1 defeat: "When you can score goals and have the ability to protect a lead, that is always the combination of potential winners."

True, United are refreshed, repaired and rampant, thanks to a resourceful Rooney. Ruud van Nistelrooy is harnessed with him, belatedly, and Sir Alex Ferguson boasts more than adequate "reserves" in Alan Smith and Louis Saha. Yet that undoubted prowess appears unlikely to compensate for shortcomings elsewhere. Even with the return of Rio Ferdinand, there remains a fragility about United's rearguard. The midfield is ageing in parts, and deficient in others.

Arsène Wenger's team are certain to qualify from a weak group, but still appear beset by that perennial uncertainty which undermines their progress in Europe. Yet for Chelsea, the pulse of confidence remains strong under the tenure of Mourinho. He is acutely aware that a Champions' League trophy is founded as much on a dearth of goals conceded as those scored.

It is suggested in a new biography * of the Chelsea owner that the Russian had "lost confidence" in Mourinho's predecessor, Claudio Ranieri, because of "what he perceived as his commitment to a negative style of play and his apparent inability to create a settled side". Intriguing that, if correct.

It could be said that, if anything, Ran-ieri's strategy was cavalier compared with that of the Portuguese man of wariness, under whom Chelsea have played nine, won seven and drawn two, but most pertinently, conceded a mere two goals. He has tinkered as much as The Tinkerman. Even his strongest advocates would accept that certain members of his squad are anything but "settled", none more so than Scott Parker, who has made one brief substitute's appearance this season. "In every family, sometimes you have problems," says Mourinho, with an insouciance which deters further debate. "When you have 10, 20, 30 people in a group working together, however good it is, there are always going to be problems."

There has been no evidence so far that Abramovich has suffered any misgivings about the man he is paying £5m a year, even when Mourinho countered criticism of the team's style with the following utterance last week: "In the Champions' League, we are in a good position to go through [the group stage]. We are second in the League, two points behind the leaders - and that is nothing." It evoked a similar quote from a Ranieri, in his desperation, at the end of last season. But then Mourinho is Abramovich's man, not a bequest. The Russian's faith, for the moment, remains undimmed.

Significantly, it was a defender, Paulo Ferreira, who was Mourinho's first acquisition. Ricardo Carvalho, named the best defender of Euro 2004, followed him not long after, also from Porto. The pair had performed in every match of the Portuguese club's successful campaign last season. Initially, John Terry had to show Carvalho around the Premiership, as if he was the new boy at school. Today, when he emerges to face Liverpool at the Bridge, Carvalho will be as familiar in his domestic surroundings as he is within European competition.

On Wednesday, both he and Ferreira strolled through the contest. Things will not be so facile today when the flags will be raised above what resembles an Iberian peninsular battle for supremacy, even with the visitors deprived of Owen and their injured captain, Steven Gerrard. Rafa Benitez's reformation of Anfield has shown only initial evidence of success. The 3-0 defeat of Norwich last week should be seen for what it was, the eclipse of a team barely above the stature of the the Championship. Olympiakos, in midweek, and Manchester United, a fortnight ago, have been rather more precise measures of Liverpool's progress.

A warning to Wayne

Wayne's Wondrous Walk-on or Not The Michael Owen Show? You could take your choice on Tuesday night. Those of us who opted for the opportunity to marvel at Real Madrid's revival against Roma were rewarded with a few glimpses of the former Liverpool striker. None, though, in the heat of conflict. It was a salutary lesson to all those who are prophesying that Rooney's career is limitless, both in terms of talent and longevity. More significantly, in the shorter term, it does create a dilemma for Sven Goran Eriksson.

In next Saturday's World Cup qualifier against Wales, should he maintain his loyalty to Owen, alongside Rooney - or opt for Jermain Defoe in tandem with the teenager? The suspicion is that the Swede will be swayed by recent form - of which Owen possesses none - and the Tottenham striker's exquisitely executed goal against Poland. If so, Owen may contemplate as he sits frustrated on the bench that it was not necessarily his move from Liverpool that was ill-conceived; merely his destination.

* 'Abramovich: The Billionaire From Nowhere' (HarperCollins, £18.99) will be published tomorrow.

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