The Nick Townsend Column: Mourinho begins the mind games for second act at theatre of the absurd

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The Independent Football

About 15 minutes after Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Chelsea's Asier Del Horno had combined in theatricals so farcical that film of it may be subtitled Carry On Up That Tunnel, Jose Mourinho appeared. Charming, debonair, the definitive family man, exuding wealth and success, he reminded us with that mischievous smile, "My life is about being one step ahead".

Unfortunately, that Mourinho existed only in an advertiser's fantasy scenario, screened during the half-time break in Sky TV's coverage. The reality at that point was rather different. His card may well be American Express. The problem was that Del Horno's had been red.

Regardless of the dubious merits of the referee Terje Hauge's verdict, the incident does the prodigiously gifted Messi and the initial aggressor, Del Horno, little credit, particularly juxtaposed with the real and possibly career-threatening injuries to Manchester United's Alan Smith and Liverpool's Mohamed Sissoko, the latter suffering retina damage after being accidentally kicked in the face in the defeat by Benfica.

Inevitably, Mourinho was positively steaming with indignation, although there was more than a whiff of hypocrisy in view of the recent conduct of some of his own players. But more crucially for the Chelsea manager, it left him as no Amex self-respecting card-holder would expect to find himself: one step behind, a position that Barcelona ultimately exploited, but only after the wounded beast had savaged their rearguard.

The furore surrounding Del Horno's dismissal has distracted from the fact that, far from reverting to a defensive style in that second half, Mourinho was emboldened enough to demand that Chelsea should sink their teeth into the Catalan throat. It was not sufficient, with the result that Barça can luxuriate in the benefit of two away goals when a goalless draw might have been in the offing.

Some may analyse it as a "Ranieri moment" that may return to condemn Mourinho; though surely he displayed tactical acumen in attempting to penetrate a seemingly vulnerable rearguard in front of a crowd already fired up, and now stoked up on indignation.

Mourinho's uncompromising attitude afterwards suggested that he is already intent on establishing a psychological advantage for a second leg which will require every aid imaginable. For all his owner's financial largesse, and his team's pre-eminence in the Premiership, Chelsea lack the myriad virtuoso performers that Barça possess. As the former Liverpool player Michael Robinson, now a Spanish TV presenter, said when assessing the damage-repair exercise the Blues must undertake: "Mr Mourinho is a brilliant manager, and underline that word brilliant. Yes, his team is capable of scoring two, three, four goals at the Nou Camp." He paused ominously... "Barcelona can score seven."

That is why Mourinho is prepared to scrap as dirty as a pugilist backed on to the ropes. The man who accused Messi of over-dramatics is a well-rehearsed actor in the theatre of the absurd. He can be Machiavellian, obdurate, myopic; but he does not possess a monopoly of any of those characteristics, as a transcript of the sayings of Chairman Alex would attest.

Like Ferguson, whom he so greatly admires and whose image he appears to be morphing into with his disinclination to speak to certain TV media, Mourinho is zealously protective of his players. In public, he defends Del Horno steadfastly. Privately, he is reportedly prepared to dispense with him.

That night at the Nou Camp will require Arjen Robben to be at his scintillating best, not keeping a little back for the World Cup; for Hernan Crespo and Didier Drogba to grind their goalscoring weaponry which appeared so blunted on Wednesday; and for men like John Terry and Eidur Gudjohnsen to stand firm again. What this team do not lack, under Mourinho, is resilience aplenty, as typified by that pair, significantly the Blues' longest-serving players.

Amid the muck and verbal bullets of Stamford Bridge in midweek, as fatigue set in and the enemy capitalised on their numerical supremacy, Terry and Gudjohnsen dug in. Maybe not for victory. The battery was too rapidly becoming depleted. But they ensured that an aggregate triumph in the return fixture on Tuesday week remains at least attainable.

Familiarity establishes a faith and commitment which under-pins sheer talent. In the story of Chelsea's creation as a depository of world football's élite, both those players can be traced back to what is almost a neolithic period; not just to the era of Claudio Ranieri, but that of Luca Vialli. Both were prominent in those teams that time forgot.

Sometimes Home Sweet Home has its attractions, even for the most ambitious of footballers, as Steven Gerrard has also demonstrated. How Liverpool rued his absence for the majority of Tuesday's game, as creator, leader and scorer - in the absence of anyone else.

Arsenal will be optimistic that Tuesday's taming of Real Madrid will reinforce Thierry Henry's homing instincts. Nevertheless, the circus surrounding the Frenchman will continue until pen meets contract. Until then, he remains the ringmaster, keeping Arsenal on a tightrope. But Henry will not be fooled into imagining that a team rendered so impotent on their travels in the Premiership have suddenly undergone a Damascene transformation by the Madrid experience. There is just the suspicion that in the return, progress may not be as facile as the faithful would prefer to imagine.

Mourinho will remain optimistic that the same is true at the Nou Camp. But a Chelsea victory by more than two goals? Such a denouement is likely to remain confined to the realms of advertising fiction.

We come to praise Manchester's man of Bury

A correspondent has taken me to task for describing Gary Neville as a son of Manchester, when in fact he was born in Bury. Far be it from me to become embroiled in a geographical - or should that be geneological? - debate over a player's Manc-ness or otherwise; what can be said is that there is no disputing the Manchester United captain's allegiance to his club both as a boy and, since the early Nineties, as a player. His crazed celebration of that fact, with those pelvic thrusts and badge-kissing at Old Trafford at the culmination of United's victory over Liverpool, has resulted in a £5,000 FA fine.

That, presumably, is the governing body's way of conveying their displeasure; by finding him what is best described as a bit guilty. It was a perverse judgement. In response, Neville has described those arbiters as trying to turn players into "robots". It's hard not to concur with him. A touch of pantomime at the Theatre of Dreams from a character who does his best to portray one of the game's ugly sisters? Neville has readily adopted the hate-figure guise bequeathed him by the departing Roy Keane, and though he was diplomacy itself when asked whether he would be "celebrating" in the event of a United triumph today, there will be no prouder player as he leads out United at a final - today's Carling Cup showpiece against Wigan - for the first time.

However, the importance of victory even in this barren of periods for United has to be placed in perspective. His team's thoughts will also be with those not present; Paul Scholes, who is still recovering from a serious eye condition, and, of course, Alan Smith. "I'm sure that we will ring Alan as soon as the game's over on Sunday. He should be with us. It's sad for us that's he not."

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