Mourinho stays aloof as bitter rivals resume battle

Chelsea's manager is in generous mood as his side prepare to meet Arsenal tomorrow but that should not be mistaken for charity, Sam Wallace writes
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The Independent Football

The summer has done nothing but persuade English football that these two clubs share the most rancorous relationship in the dysfunctional Premiership family but when they meet at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, it will be, for once, unaccompanied by the echo of serious insults.

Mourinho's preferred mode of transport around the training ground is now a green buggy borrowed from the groundsman, perhaps a sign that he is not about to take himself quite so seriously. The Chelsea manager was prepared even to answer questions on the abduction of the club's mascot Stamford the Lion - now safely returned - and he was unwilling to take every bait that Arsène Wenger has set him over the past week.

The phrase Mourinho used to describe his new serenity was rendered in Portuguese and, when explained by La Gazzetta dello Sport's veteran reporter, was translated as "when the dogs bark, the caravan just carries on through". Mourinho has made a resolution not to react to every slight aimed at Chelsea, although he conceded that when "it hurts my players, I will jump in to defend them". His handshake with Wenger at the start of the game tomorrow will be offered without ill feeling.

The summer has not yet cooled the antipathy that Chelsea's executives feel for the manner in which Arsenal forced through the inquiry into the chief executive Peter Kenyon's illegal approach to Ashley Cole. At Highbury they have noted Mourinho's strenuous appeal last month to have the Arsenal vice-chairman, David Dein, removed from the Football Association's board. There have been happier fundraising events than the one that awaits the FA officials in the directors' box tomorrow.

Yesterday Mourinho was prepared to make the distinction between "Arsène Wenger the man and Arsène Wenger the manager".

"I don't know Wenger and I can't criticise people I don't know because I have met him only once in Geneva [at a coaching conference]," Mourinho said. "I shake hands with him before and after every game but I can't judge him by his comments. I have had a better chance to get to know Sir Alex [Ferguson] - we've been together three times in Geneva, flown on the same plane and our teams have played many times."

For all the talk of détente, Mourinho was prepared to set Wenger right on the issue of the £21m price that Chelsea paid for Shaun Wright-Phillips - a fee that the Arsenal manager judged to be more than twice the £10m valuation that he had set on the England winger. The 23-year-old, the fourth most expensive Englishman in history, could well start on the right wing tomorrow ahead of Joe Cole and, for Wenger, he will represent another sharp young talent he has lost to the financial might of Chelsea.

"The English market is a special market and between English clubs the transfer fee is very high," Mourinho said. "That's not because it's Chelsea but simply because if a player moves from one club to another it's expensive. If you are not worried about playing 11 foreign players like some teams do then it doesn't matter. If you are worried about an English core of players then you have to buy an English player every season and that's expensive."

With a squad free of injuries, the establishment of the Chelsea hierarchy begins tomorrow when Mourinho picks two wingers from Wright-Phillips, Cole, Arjen Robben and Damien Duff and one striker from Didier Drogba and Hernan Crespo. Mourinho hinted that he would make extensive changes throughout the match - he has seven substitutions available to him - and Wenger is likely to give Gilberto Silva just a half as he returns to fitness.

That will mean that at some point the Arsenal central midfield will be reduced to two out of Robert Pires, Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini - talented men, but their task against Frank Lampard, Claude Makelele and Eidur Gudjohnsen puts into perspective the loss of Patrick Vieira. There is experience in Arsenal's midfield in Freddie Ljungberg on the right wing, while Jose Antonio Reyes offers quality on the left. But the Arsenal side still looks like a work in progress; Chelsea's is all but completed.

It was presumably that preparation that gave Kenyon the confidence to announce that the Premiership champions would come from a "small group of one" and Mourinho defended the right of his chief executive to make the kind of predictions that do little to popularise Chelsea. "I think that when he says that he's trying to motivate his own club and it is good that the chief executive trusts us so much. He is saying what he believes, what is his soul. The others should just ignore it."

Lyon may find it a little harder to ignore the advice that Mourinho had to offer them yesterday when he suggested that they end the summer's most tedious transfer saga and discuss a price for Michael Essien, who has threatened strike action unless he is allowed to leave. There was, Mourinho said, a principle that dictated "every player had a price" and that it was about time Lyon decided on Essien's valuation.

"If I had a player who was desperate to leave ... I would have to come to the conclusion that I couldn't keep him," he said. "If a Chelsea player requests a transfer, the next day the market is open. I say to him, 'This is your valuation and if someone meets it you can go'. If this transfer happens I'll be happy, but if it doesn't I'm not going to panic."

The next serious instalment in the rivalry of these two teams comes at Stamford Bridge on 21 August, by which time Chelsea will hope to have Essien and Arsenal will want to know they have a central midfielder to replace Vieira. No conclusive points could be drawn from a friendly match, Mourinho said, but if, for example, Wright-Phillips devastates Arsenal's defence there will be no doubting that a standard has been set, a challenge issued.

On the right, Wright-Phillips will face Ashley Cole, whose meeting with Mourinho and Kenyon in January set these two clubs on a war footing. "That's life," Mourinho said. "They are happy because they have the left-back they have, he is happy with his new contract, we are happy because we have Asier Del Horno."

It was an admirable attempt to draw a line under one of English football's most divisive disputes, but you could not help but feel it might not quite suffice.