James Lawton: Mourinho's clarity blurs Ferguson vision

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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson is not likely to admit defeat any time soon. That would be to destroy the meaning of his life. But it wasn't hard to see something new in his eyes this week. It was neither anger nor indignation, his usual reactions when things don't go so well. He didn't even suggest he was a victim of some dark conspiracy.

Sir Alex Ferguson is not likely to admit defeat any time soon. That would be to destroy the meaning of his life. But it wasn't hard to see something new in his eyes this week. It was neither anger nor indignation, his usual reactions when things don't go so well. He didn't even suggest he was a victim of some dark conspiracy.

Maybe what it was was a loss of certainty, a suspicion that finally he may be confronting someone 20 years his junior who not only knows as much but cares as much.

This, no doubt, was the possibility that suffused Old Trafford as Chelsea, withstanding a fierce uprising of United pride and talent, reached the final of the Carling Cup - and the first milestone in Jose Mourinho's audacious belief that it might be possible for a team to win all the four prizes available.

Ferguson - and this no doubt was the deepest drag on his spirit on Wednesday night - had told the world the ambition was ridiculous. Maybe it is indeed too much even for a club of Chelsea's resources, but for the moment the improbable dream is alive, and perhaps the most vital point is that when you boil it down to its essence Mourinho didn't state an ambition. Maybe he wasn't projecting a trophy room groaning with silverware but a state of mind, one that would influence every Chelsea performance.

At Old Trafford this week you had to have a sense of football destiny, and though United scarcely buckled - indeed they could easily have won, especially if they had been awarded a penalty when Wayne Bridge clattered Quinton Fortune - it was difficult not to believe it belonged to Chelsea.

Before the game, Ferguson said you could read too much into a football mind game, but if there was indeed a danger of this it was surely of his own doing. It was Ferguson who said the glory couldn't be quadrupled. That his selection policy was fixed after a team laced with reserves beat Young Arsenal in the Carling quarter-final. That the football agenda was something into which he would continue to delve on his own terms.

So what did he do when he picked a maximum strength United this week? He blinked. He said that suddenly this had become one of the most important games of the season. All the key men were there, Ferdinand, Keane, Scholes, Giggs, Ronaldo, and Rooney came on as a second-half reinforcement of the best that United could offer.

But Mourinho's men held the line; they defended with much greater force and control, and if they didn't dominate the midfield, they showed that Mourinho has worked powerfully on the motivation of Claude Makelele, who again looked like the player who shored up the Real galacticos for so long, and was rewarded with a seriously plonked kiss by his coach at the end. And in Arjen Robben and Damien Duff they have the best sources of outlet and relief currently at work in the Premiership, and maybe Europe.

As Chelsea worked so assiduously, you were reminded of an old story of the ground when the young Nobby Stiles eavesdropped a ferocious argument between Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas during half-time in a friendly matched between United and Real. Stiles was startled by the point of a diatribe from Di Stefano. It was that Puskas was underperforming - in a friendly.

Mourinho's insistence that Chelsea must fight 100 per cent on all fronts fits seamlessly into the great Di Stefano's idea of the correct level of every professional's commitment. In every situation you play to win. It is the most vital habit.

That such a culture may have been undermined in these days of football largesse seems to be the principle on which Mourinho places most emphasis. His passion - and his courtesy in victory - was so striking it reminded you of some of the things he said in Gelsenkirchen last spring, when he produced Porto's remarkable Champions' League victory. He said that he would be saddened if he thought he would not enjoy some similar moment of triumph in the 20 or so years that lay ahead.

It meant that he had to try for everything, to punish himself as much as he did his players, and if some of those players did not relish that pressure, well, they had to be replaced.

No one has been more demanding of such effort as Ferguson but maybe the long years of success, and wealth, had worked into the psychology of his club and players more than he had imagined. Certainly when the team he picked against Exeter struggled so badly in front of a sell-out crowd, he was appalled. Perhaps too many team-sheets had sent out to many ambiguous messages.

Certainly no possibility of such confusion bedevils the thinking of Chelsea. As Mourinho celebrated his 42nd birthday at Old Trafford, he seemed, in a vital way, old beyond his years. It was as though he had looked into the future and seen something he didn't like. So he had created a football world of his own. For the moment at least it is in perfect working order.

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