Grand slam at risk as Jose falls back on gold reserves

With Barcelona in mind, Chelsea manager undermines Cup chances by fielding weakened side
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The Independent Football

Jose Mourinho, neither the first nor the last manager in England to have his ambitions entangled in a knot of fixture congestion, has revealed that he would happily have used his strongest possible side if Chelsea's FA Cup fifth-round tie at Newcastle could have been played yesterday instead of this afternoon, 72 hours before the crucial Champions' League game in Barcelona. Instead, he says, the Premiership leaders will field "seven or eight" reserves, reluctantly jeopardising their hopes of an historic clean sweep of four major trophies.

Jose Mourinho, neither the first nor the last manager in England to have his ambitions entangled in a knot of fixture congestion, has revealed that he would happily have used his strongest possible side if Chelsea's FA Cup fifth-round tie at Newcastle could have been played yesterday instead of this afternoon, 72 hours before the crucial Champions' League game in Barcelona. Instead, he says, the Premiership leaders will field "seven or eight" reserves, reluctantly jeopardising their hopes of an historic clean sweep of four major trophies.

Controversial as ever, Mourinho has blamed the Football Association for inflexibility and devaluing their own most prestigious competition. Last week's complaint - a coincidence turned conspiracy theory - was that Chelsea always have less rest after midweek internationals than Manchester United and Arsenal. But he may be underestimating the extent to which clubs have sold their soul, and fixtures, to television. The BBC, given first choice of the weekend's fifth-round ties, opted for Everton against Manchester United as their Saturday evening game, so Sky Sports chose Chelsea's tie for their prime Sunday afternoon slot.

"I regard it [Newcastle] as a big match but I don't have supermen, so some of my top men cannot play," Mourinho said. "I will rest seven or eight. On Saturday, I would have played my first team. I know Newcastle played on Thursday [in the Uefa Cup] but they could have played on Wednesday, then Saturday. The FA must defend the interests of clubs representing England in Europe. If Chelsea played Saturday with their best team, that defends the interests of the competition and the teams in Europe."

Anticipating the sort of criticism Liverpool's Rafael Benitez received after losing with a weakened team in the third round at Burnley, he added: "Nobody can say I don't respect the cups in England, because I played every game in the Carling Cup with our best team when other teams were playing with second teams. We and Manchester United played the semi-finals of the Carling Cup with our best teams. Now I can't do it."

The reserves expected to be given a chance today - people such as Carlo Cudicini, Glen Johnson, Ricardo Carvalho, Alexei Smertin, Jiri Jarosik, Joe Cole and Mateja Kezman - would stroll into most Premiership sides. Nevertheless, it is a significant weakening, with both the English warriors John Terry and Frank Lampard missing, as well as the apparently unbeatable goalkeeper Petr Cech, Didier Drogba and the longer-term injured such as Scott Parker and, crucially, Arjen Robben. Since Robben's injury at Blackburn, balance has been lost, and with Joe Cole, who is not a winger, as the Dutchman's nominal replacement, Chelsea have reverted to the derided 1-0, 0-0 team of early season.

But Mourinho, a modern results-man if he is anything, resented criticism of those scorelines and would be happy to keep such a run going as long as FA Cup replays do not impinge on an already demanding fixture list. He knows the recent dogged 1-0 wins oop north, where Sir Alex Ferguson was insisting Chelsea might slip and blip, have virtually ensured achieving the season's highest priority, the Premiership title, contributing to a nine-point lead with 11 games to play.

"I judge teams by championships. It's pure. The best team wins. And nine points is a lot. You may not believe it, but at half-time at Everton I told my players, 'Let the game flow, a point is good, no problem if we lose two points'. I didn't scream, I made no changes, I told them, 'Nine points, nine points, if you don't score, you don't score'." Then a little smile: "I was desperate to score!" And score they did.

By reaching next Sunday's Carling Cup final against Liverpool, Mourinho has ensured there is every chance of securing at least two trophies in his first season, which would remove an awful lot of pressure from all concerned. The FA Cup, famed as it is in Portugal as much as everywhere else, has clearly slipped down the list of priorities, but the Champions' League, "my competition", retains a special appeal, despite an acknowledgement of the thin lines between progress and elimination - in Porto's case last season, for instance, the Paul Scholes goal wrongly disallowed at Old Trafford, before Tim Howard failed to keep out a last-minute free-kick and Costinha scored.

"I won the Champions' League, and it has incredible prestige, but to win it, you need a top team but also a little bit of luck at the right moment. If we didn't score in the last minute against Man United with Porto, we are out. Juve against Milan in the [2003] final - penalties. I cannot judge my team on a knockout competition like that."

That will be the ready-made get-out should Barcelona, equally gifted and almost as cosmopolitan, dash the cup with the big ears from his hands over the next three weeks. Realisation about the hectic nature of the English calendar is also dawning on him, even if the nature of television's influence has not yet done so. But the suggestion that another top-class wide player should have been signed in the transfer window, when Chelsea contented themselves with the tall midfielder Jarosik, is quickly dismissed: "If I buy somebody for that position there would be a big risk to be on the bench for six months and not touch the ball. You could buy one of the best players in the world to sit on the bench."

In the summer, however many trophies are in a denuded Stamford Bridge locker, he will buy perhaps two players and prepare the next stage of Chelsea's tactical evolution. The bad news for all opposition, at home and abroad, Mourinho revealed, is that he does not expect the squad to reach a peak until the third year of his stewardship, just as Porto did.

At the moment, new to the peculiar demands of English football, he is delib-erately not changing too much all at once: "Here I have better players, but Porto by my third year [were] a better team tactically. They knew everything I knew, how to adapt, and change from system to system. We still have a way to go and there must be phases, step by step. So next pre-season will be important."

The final question at the end of a mammoth session was whether the quadruple is still feasible. It brought a typically defiant response. "It's not impossible when you are [still] in the competitions. If one day you lose a knockout situation, then you lose the chance. We always believe we can win the next match. So at this moment we believe we can beat Newcastle." Even with seven or eight reserves.

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