Foreigners vindicate devalued final

Click to follow
The Independent Football

When Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez were dividing up the biggest prizes in Europe between them last season, they would hardly have considered that English football's least glamorous trophy would have such significance in their careers less than a year hence. The Carling Cup welcomes back football royalty tomorrow, when the maligned, often-ignored old silver pot will offer vindication for at least one highly decorated, expensive foreign coach.

When Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez were dividing up the biggest prizes in Europe between them last season, they would hardly have considered that English football's least glamorous trophy would have such significance in their careers less than a year hence. The Carling Cup welcomes back football royalty tomorrow, when the maligned, often-ignored old silver pot will offer vindication for at least one highly decorated, expensive foreign coach.

To observe Jose Mourinho yesterday it was scarcely credible to think that the Chelsea coach will probably show more enthusiasm for the old English Football League Cup than he did for the biggest prize of all when it was presented to his Porto team in Gelsenkirchen in May. After the European Cup final he wrenched off his medal, stalked out of the stadium and began his long goodbye to Portuguese football.

Tomorrow, in the event of victory, Mourinho might wish to linger a little longer on the pitch. Not only will he be able to savour the end of a two-match losing streak but it will be an opportunity to deliver the first piece of silverware into the hands of Roman Abramovich in return for all that Russian gold he has paid out. That alone will be a moment of great significance for Chelsea's extraordinary benefactor.

It is not hard to imagine that when Abramovich bought his way into English football culture, beyond acceptance by his new country, days like tomorrow were exactly what he had in mind. Packed stadiums, grateful fans and Chelsea's ribbons on ancient English football trophies. Mourinho argued yesterday that this was a long-term project, but Abramovich's first trophy will be a source of relief for everyone at the club.

"Memories in football are short and people forget that other clubs did it as part of a process," Mourinho said. "People say Chelsea spent this amount of money but you speak about the space of two years, not a global process where a club has developed over many, many areas. We are not a club with a culture of winning like Arsenal, Manchester United, Juventus, AC Milan and Real Madrid - clubs with years of constructing a team.

"If you want to have a short memory or put pressure on Chelsea, just mention the amount of money spent over the last two years and demand more victories. If you want to be football people, and understand what football is, building a team and a club it is not like that. You can say what you want, but if Chelsea win the Premiership, the season will be historical and fantastic and a wonderful step for the future of the club."

It would take a brave man to explain to Abramovich that £250m of his oil fortune buys only a "global process" and not every major trophy in Europe. Winning a cup will also matter more to Frank Lampard who admitted yesterday that all he had ever won was an InterToto Cup with West Ham and a youth tournament with the same club, the name and date of which he could not recall. After the nature of their defeat to Barcelona, Mourinho needs a victory tomorrow more than he has at any point this season, although he argued hard to the contrary.

"Chelsea's players were never in such a good situation as they are at the moment," he said. "They are enjoying the situation. Everybody in this club understands that at this moment it is easier to win the Premiership than the Carling Cup. The Carling Cup is one game. If you win it, you get the trophy; if you lose, you don't. There are 11 games to play in the Premiership and we have eight points to control."

The only player Mourinho said that he could be missing from the match against Barcelona was his central defender William Gallas who is still struggling with a groin injury. He was unafraid of naming his team again, but he stopped short of detailing the entire Liverpool line-up other than suggesting that Benitez would have a difficult choice to make between playing Fernando Morientes alone or alongside Milan Baros.

For Benitez, the Carling Cup is something to be salvaged from the season rather than the adornment that it is likely to be for a Chelsea side with their sights set on greater objectives. When you consider the hail of criticism the Spanish coach was subjected to when he bravely shifted the FA Cup down his list priorities in January it would be perverse for the English football pubic to now tell him that victory in the Carling Cup was simply meaningless.

Benitez's problems endure despite the 3-1 victory over Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions' League on Tuesday night and yesterday he described his frustration at the speed of progress his Liverpool team had made. "We need to change and it is not easy," he said. "After two or three games you see the same mistakes and you know you still haven't solved it."

Yet his decision to place the pressure on Chelsea as favourites, and to identify Mourinho's half-time tactics as flawed, suggests that there is a great deal more to know about the patient, thoughtful Spanish coach whose introduction to English football has been as quiet as his opposite number's has been colourful. Mourinho's allegations that Liverpool had the easier route to the final are unlikely to trouble Benitez, who played a team of unknowns in the earlier rounds.

Both men have spent much of their first season in England reassuring their supporters that the future is safe with them, that they are capable of delivering two demanding football clubs success commensurate with their prestige.

"The day the club is not happy with me, the next day I will go," Mourinho said. "I am never under pressure." Benitez talked again of the long process of building a winning team.

When they judge the significance of the Carling Cup over the next day, both might like to consider the fate of Claudio Ranieri: Mourinho's predecessor and Benitez's successor at Valencia. Sacked for the second time in a year yesterday, he would have settled for the unfashionable fourth trophy of English football.

Comments