Mourinho pours honeyed words on muddy water

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The Independent Football

Honeyed words spilt from the lips of Jose Mourinho last night as he looked forward to tonight's Champions' League tie with Barcelona but outside, ahead of Barcelona's training session, a deluge of a different kind was flooding the already sodden mudflats of Stamford Bridge. Conspiracy? Maybe, conceded the Barcelona captain, Carles Puyol. Not at all, said his coach Frank Rijkaard.

The Dutchman, clearly fed up with the verbal jousting that has preceded this tie, would not utter a word of criticism thus inadvertently - or was it deliberately? - eclipsing Mourinho's own conciliatory note.

That is the problem with this tie. After the furore which surrounded Chelsea's dispatching of Barcelona at the same stage last year the game has almost become an afterthought. Thankfully, at 7.45pm tonight - flooding permitting - the talking stops and the football starts.

It should be a thrilling contest, and as intriguing as the build-up. Yesterday, for anyone who knows how carefully Mourinho plans his press conferences, it was impossible not to suspect mischief as he carefully sidestepped a series of opportunities to fuel the apparent animosity between himself and Rijkaard. True, he said anyone who thought Chelsea had deliberately created their mudheap of a pitch was "stupid" but explicitly said he had not seen any such reference by Rijkaard. He also rejected suggestions that Chelsea were a "long-ball" team but that he felt required to add "not by English standards" suggests he accepts that, to Spanish eyes, they are.

As for Rijkaard's suggestion yesterday that he knew the referee Terje Hauge "intimately" and regularly had dinner with him, that was laughed off. "It is important in life to have a sense of humour," Mourinho said.

Two hours later, during which the sprinklers had added to the hail, sleet and rain which fell in west London yesterday, Rijkaard said with a straight face: "Chelsea is a great club, they are a wonderful opponent." Not quite the sentiments expressed a year ago, when Mourinho accused Rijkaard of going into the dressing-room of Anders Frisk, prompting the referee's retirement and Uefa to ban and fine Mourinho. But Rijkaard was on surer ground when he accused the media, of both countries, of seeking to inflame any lingering resentment.

Still, there is no smoke, as they say, without a burning Swan Vesta and Puyol was eventually led away from the diplomatic path. "It doesn't seem normal to water the pitch while it is raining," he said. "It's possible they have watered the pitch to disrupt our training. I don't think you can discount that. I think it will affect us more in the match because we are not used to playing in these conditions. We must not give the ball away in midfield, as that is where Chelsea are strong."

Whoah! That last comment was about football, not rows, real or imaginary. What was he thinking? Puyol was thinking about the game, and so are the coaches. Winning the war of words is one thing, but the last word goes to the coach who wins the tie.

Puyol's view of the midfield is valid, the more so since Barcelona are without Xavi, whose long-term injury more than compensates Chelsea for the absence of the suspended Michael Essien. With Barcelona concerned about a defence which lacks pace in the centre and discipline on the flanks, Thiago Motta, who sometimes plays like a raging bull, is likely to join Edmilson in stiffening the midfield around Deco.

Chelsea are also without William Gallas, though Mourinho expects the French defender to be available for the second leg. His selection doubts concern the identity of Essien's replacement, with Eidur Gudjohnsen's passing and goalscoring ability likely to win him the nod over Maniche and the forwards. Given the conditions, Didier Drogba should play, rather than Hernan Crespo, with Joe Cole on the right - where he will be expected to track Ronaldinho - and Arjen Robben rather than Damien Duff on the left.

Barcelona are stronger than a year ago, with several players returned to fitness and Lionel Messi, the latest and arguably most convincing heir to Diego Maradona's crown, having emerged. "He's a massive talent, possibly the biggest in world football at his age," said Mourinho of the 18-year-old Argentinian.

Along with Samuel Eto'o and Ronaldinho, Messi makes up the most potent forward line in the game, and while the match may be cagier than last season's titanic encounter, the one result that can be ruled out is 0-0. On this subject Mourinho did not have the last word. "That is not a result I would play for, but it would not frighten me." "Same for us," reflected Rijkaard.

Last season's tie finished with Chelsea edging through 5-4 on aggregate, having won 4-2 at the Bridge, but had Pierluigi Collina seen Ricardo Carvalho wipe out the goalkeeper before John Terry scored Chelsea's 76th-minute winner the Catalans would have progressed. The breathless calibre of the match has been subsequently overshadowed by the unsavoury atmosphere which surrounded it.

While that is one reason why the rematch is so eagerly awaited, it is to be hoped tonight's contest will be remembered for its football.