O'Neill savours Mourinho rematch

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So how does the self-styled Special One compare with the self-styled Ol' Big 'Ead? Martin O'Neill pitted himself against Jose Mourinho in a bitter European final - as he does again with Aston Villa today - and against Brian Clough during his time as a Nottingham Forest player. Much as he respects the Chelsea manager's record, he regards it as no contest.

In his final interview, Clough said that he saw himself in the upstart Portuguese. They had both won the European Cup with unfashionable clubs, Forest and Porto, and shared a tendency to shoot from the lip. While O'Neill's view of his old boss often lies somewhere between mentor and tormentor, he is clear about his place in the pantheon.

"Brian Clough was arguably the best manager the game has known and unquestionably the most charismatic," the Villa manager said when pressed about Mourinho and Clough. "He won two European Cups and a championship with Forest. It would be hard to compare anyone with a man who really was out on his own.

"I may not always have appreciated him at the time - certainly not when he put the team sheet up and I was No 12 - but overall, he was extraordinary."

If something about his Chelsea counterpart still rankles with O'Neill, as it patently does with Arsène Wenger and Rafael Benitez, he did his best to avoid articulating it. The pair do, however, have a history. After Porto had beaten his Celtic side 3-2 in a dramatic 2003 Uefa Cup final in Spain, the Northern Irishman complained about their cynical gamesmanship, while Mourinho labelled the losers as over-aggressive.

O'Neill's assessment of Mourinho's career since that night concentrated on his record. Going on to win the Champions' League with Porto was "fantastic", he said, and he had "the utmost regard for any manager who has done it". However, he noted that Celtic had encountered Porto two years earlier, when a different coach was in charge, and they already had "the makings of a fine side".

The paths of the antagonists in Seville have crossed only once in the ensuing three and a half years. Two summers ago, O'Neill went to watch his old club, Wycombe Wanderers, play Chelsea in a pre-season friendly. "I was in a little room afterwards and Jose came in. We exchanged pleasantries and that was it." No running feud then but, equally, no forgive-and-forget hugs. O'Neill acknowledges Chelsea's "extraordinary consistency" under Mourinho, admires their ability to play expansively or physically depending on the situation and describes John Terry as "the strongest and most talismanic character you could want".

He also praises them for having broken the Arsenal-Manchester United duopoly. Yet his own team are one of only two left unbeaten in the Premiership (with Everton), and although the champions have yet to lose in 41 League fixtures at Stamford Bridge under their current manager, he will impress upon Villa that there is nothing inevitable about that total increasing. "It's not one of those where, if you lose, you say, 'It's all right because it's Chelsea'," O'Neill said. "It's not all right. We have to try to win - and we're capable of doing that."

The pundits suggest the match represents the acid test of Villa's potential to stay with the front-runners. O'Neill believes they have already come through such an examination, holding Arsenal in the first competitive game at their new stadium. "We've actually improved since then. There's more confidence and greater fluidity in the team, and we're capable of scoring there. So I don't think we should be intimidated. Other teams have failed at Chelsea and we may end up being just another statistic. But I'd prefer us to go there with belief and determination, both of which we have."

O'Neill is, of course, likened to Clough himself, and there was more than a hint of the latter's bravado when he outlined his ambitions for Villa. "Chelsea are an inch away from taking the Champions' League in the foreseeable future. We're a good way from that right now - but it's what we should aspire to."

l Claude Makelele, the Chelsea midfielder, was yesterday named again in the France squad for the Euro 2008 qualifiers against Scotland and the Faroe Islands next week. The France coach Raymond Domenech said: "My duty is to pick the best players available."

Clashing heads When Martin first met Jose

The last time Martin O'Neill and Jose Mourinho (right) came face to face was in the 2003 Uefa Cup final in Seville. O'Neill was managing Celtic and Mourinho was in charge of Porto, who won 3-2 after extra time. The game was a heated affair with six bookings and two red cards. After the game, O'Neill was furious with the Porto players' behaviour and felt that they showed "poor sportsmanship". Mourinho rejected any suggestion that any of his players used underhand tactics. "What [Bobo] Baldé did to Deco in front of me could have ended his career," Mourinho said. "I'd prefer to ask, was the behaviour of the Celtic players normal in your country?"

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