One "ghost goal" in the Champions' League, nine matches, a 15-point gap in the Premiership and a battle for the heart and mind of Steven Gerrard - it is the turn of the FA Cup today to attempt to decide the relative merits of Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez. Round 10 between these two young masters of Europe has a uniquely English context.
Does Mourinho's Premiership title outweigh Benitez's European Cup? Does the gentle reawakening of the most successful club in England beat the brute force of Roman Abramovich's wealth? Was Luis Garcia's Champions' League winner last season over the line? On the scorecard, Mourinho has it with five wins against Liverpool; on trophies, Benitez's European Cup trumps them all. The volatile nature of an FA Cup semi-final, played on neutral ground, has the feel of a title decider to settle two years' of full-blooded exchanges.
Mourinho, of course, does not see it that way. He reminded us yesterday of Liverpool's 30-point Premiership deficit to Chelsea last season, halved to 15 this time. "It could go from 30 to 15 and zero next season," he said with a touch of condescension. "But you never know, it could be 30 again."
Mourinho has beaten Benitez four times in the Premiership as well as the Carling Cup final - but defeat today will raise the old spectre of Chelsea's susceptibility to Liverpool.
Last season, Liverpool exited the FA Cup with scarcely a trace of remorse against Burnley. This season they have achieved the one feat Chelsea have not managed - beating Manchester United - on the way to the semi-finals. Even a manager as well-insulated against the old sentimentality of English football as Benitez would have to accept that the old Cup has a relevance for him now.
It was Benitez who offered the hospitality when he sauntered over for a very public chat on the touchline at Anfield during the warm-up for the Champions' League game in September but there is another side to the Liverpool manager. Mourinho will be in no doubt of the slight that Benitez has dealt him this week in heaping the praise for Chelsea's revival on Abramovich rather than his manager.
Nothing enrages Mourinho more than discussion of what Arsène Wenger describes as Chelsea's "financial doping". When the Liverpool manager assessed Chelsea this week, there was no mention of anyone beyond their Russian benefactor.
"Abramovich has done a fantastic job with this team. When you spend that kind of money you must be top of the table and in cup finals," he said. "It is the same in Spain with Real Madrid and Barcelona, and in Italy with Milan and Juventus. After 50 years without a title, they are about to win two in a row."
Was there to be no credit for Mourinho? "For me it is the chairman," Benitez said, "or rather the owner - that is the key." Ouch. By Benitez's mild-mannered standards, that counts as the height of provocation and for once Mourinho can be spared the role of provocateur.
We heard only fragments of the Chelsea manager's grievances about Liverpool. There was the "ghost goal" - Mourinho's description for Garcia's semi-final winner - and the suggestion that he is no great admirer of the way Liverpool play: "They have their style of play that you can love or hate but they believe in it." But above all, Mourinho repeated the message that he has given to Manchester United over the last two weeks, but rings just as true with Liverpool.
"When you are in a big club, you are first or you are nothing because nothing else matters," he said. "If you are champions you succeed, if you are not champions you don't succeed and in every country you always have three or four clubs fighting for the title and only one can win. Nobody is [happy with second place]. I think when you are in a big club, it's win or win."
It will be "win or win" today for Chelsea without Michael Essien or Eidur Gudjohnsen. Essien, he said, has not trained all week after picking up a knee injury against Everton while Gudjohnsen is ill. No Essien means one less line of defence against Gerrard, a midfielder whose flirtation over two summers with Chelsea is at the heart, you suspect, of the grievance between the two managers.
Mourinho still grimaces at the mention of the England midfielder's name and he could not resist reminding Gerrard of what he had turned down. "We have moved on," Mourinho said, "and probably, not 100 per cent sure, we will be champions again". With a European Cup to his name, Gerrard probably feels he has moved on too.
"I'm not going to go through another summer like the last two," Gerrard said yesterday, although that was more to do with Real Madrid's attention. "I'll be staying here until the day someone tells me they don't want me," he added.
Today the FA Cup offers a new perspective on a very complicated history between these two sides. Two seasons, nine games and a lot of unsettled scores. Jose Reina's sending-off for a glove in the face of Arjen Robben is where they left off in February - and the conflict between the managers is only just getting warm.
Turning points Where the cup duels between Mourinho and Benitez have been won and lost
* LIVERPOOL 2-3 CHELSEA (aet)
27/2/05 League Cup final
With 11 minutes of the game remaining, Steven Gerrard, who had been linked with a move to Chelsea, headed the ball into his own net (above, left) to level the score at 1-1. Chelsea went on to win the game in extra time, thanks to two goals in six minutes from Didier Drogba and Mateja Kezman, securing Jose Mourinho's first trophy in England. The Chelsea manager had been escorted from the touchline after appearing to gesture to the Liverpool fans when his side equalised but returned at the final whistle to offer a consoling hand to Gerrard.
* CHELSEA 0 LIVERPOOL 0
27/4/05 Champions' League Semi-final first leg
* LIVERPOOL 1 CHELSEA 0 3/5/05 Champions' League Semi-final second leg
A controversial goal from Luis Garcia (above, right) sent Rafael Benitez's side through to the final and victory in the European Cup, but left Mourinho ungraciously claiming that the linesman who ruled the ball had crossed the Chelsea line had aided Liverpool's cause by "scoring" for them.
* LIVERPOOL 0 CHELSEA 0
28/9/05 Champions' League Group Stage
* CHELSEA 0 LIVERPOOL 0
6/12/05 Champions' League Group Stage
* OVERALL (Cup and League)
Benitez 1 Mourinho 5 Draws 3Reuse content