They face each other tonight for the eighth time since Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez arrived in England in the summer of last year and, among those games, European Cup final places have been won and lost, insults traded and managerial reputations made. This time around, Mourinho's enthusiasm for the battle was more than a little jaded: he said he was much more concerned about beating Wigan on Saturday.
Such is life at the top of Champions' League Group G where both teams have qualified and neither manager can decide whether finishing top will mean a meeting with one of the bigger beasts of European football or an easier route via a tie with a lucky survivor. With tonight's result deciding only which team finishes top, Mourinho said that the choice of facing Lyon or Real Madrid, Juventus or Bayern Munich did not concern him quite as much as Saturday's visitors.
"I would prefer to beat Wigan than Liverpool because finishing first in the group has no particular consequences," he said. "To beat Wigan is three more points in the direction of the Premiership. In the Premiership the best team wins and if you don't win you have to accept that somebody was better than you over 38 matches. In the Champions' League you need a little bit of luck at the crucial moment."
That luck he ascribed to Liverpool and Luis Garcia's winning goal at Anfield - that replays revealed had never crossed the line in the semi-final last season - a moment which, however casually Mourinho may treat it now, is one that he surely will never be reconciled to. The Chelsea manager could not resist advancing the opinion that even though there will be so little at stake in terms of qualification tonight, he still did not expect Liverpool to throw off their defensive approach.
That same defence held strong in the teams' previous Champions' League meeting in September but was crushed four days later in the Premiership when Chelsea won 4-1 at Anfield in their fourth victory over Liverpool in the seven meetings between the two managers. On that occasion there was plenty to prove, Jamie Carragher even offered Frank Lampard odds that he would miss his penalty in front of the Kop, but the fire that raged between these two teams will take something extraordinary to reignite tonight.
Even Mourinho's observation that Liverpool were "lucky" to win the European Cup last season was tempered by the admission that his triumphant Porto team the year before were equally fortunate. Benitez said that he was "angry" with his team for collapsing at home on 2 October but added that a run of eight matches, or 12 hours and 24 minutes, without conceding a goal suggested his team might not be quite so brittle for this encounter.
Apart from his vague hope that finishing first might mean that Chelsea draw Artmedia Bratislava - should they qualify - Mourinho's greatest hope was that his injury problems might begin to ease. With Hernan Crespo, Joe Cole, Claude Makelele and Glen Johnson injured, he said that he has only 18 players to choose from and "they are all selected" while Benitez will rest Xabi Alonso, who has a slight knee injury.
The departure of Wanderley Luxemburgo from Real Madrid has prompted the usual suggestion that the chaotic rulers of the Bernabeu might set their sights upon one of tonight's two managers. "I like Luxemburgo very much, but that's football," Mourinho said. "But for me this is just speculation."
"I am the manager of Liverpool Football Club and I don't like to talk about other clubs," Benitez said. "Against Chelsea in the Premiership we made mistakes and they have the players to punish you. That was the difference. Every other game against Chelsea has been close and I was angry after the last one because we had played well for 26 minutes, then conceded the penalty, then we made another three mistakes and conceded three more goals. But we are stronger in defence now."
Benitez was supported by Carragher who said that the players brought in by his manager this summer - Peter Crouch, Jose Reina and Mohammed Sissoko in particular - were "more suited to the English league than some of those he got rid of".
"We've made a big improvement so far," Carragher said. "Our intention has always been to break up the so-called big three."
There were 37 points between them in the Premiership last season, and yet the Champions' League eroded that difference in the space of 90 gripping minutes at Anfield on 3 May. Tonight will have none of the significance of that evening but it will give Liverpool another chance to see just how much more progress they will have to make before they come to the games that really matter.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Ferreira, Terry, Carvalho, Del Horno; Essien; Cole, Gudjohnsen, Lampard, Duff; Drogba.
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Carson; Josemi, Carragher, Hyypia, Traoré; Gerrard, Sissoko, Hamann, Riise; Kewell; Cissé.
Referee: H Fandel (Germany).Reuse content