Peter Corrigan: Mourinho must beware bonfire of the eulogies

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The Independent Football

Less than two weeks ago, today's Carling Cup final beckoned as a pleasant diversion for Chelsea; the first of a quadruple bypass of what was once considered the heart of England's footballing aristocracy. A tournament normally reserved for Cinderellas who ain't going to get to any other ball was offering Chelsea a rehearsal of the art of trophy-receiving - who gets to wear the lid on his head first, and all that.

Less than two weeks ago, today's Carling Cup final beckoned as a pleasant diversion for Chelsea; the first of a quadruple bypass of what was once considered the heart of England's footballing aristocracy. A tournament normally reserved for Cinderellas who ain't going to get to any other ball was offering Chelsea a rehearsal of the art of trophy-receiving - who gets to wear the lid on his head first, and all that.

Suddenly, the day has acquired an urgency far beyond showing off to the nation in front of the sheer slopes of the Millennium Stadium where, fair play, they do a rousingly good football gala.

Chelsea and their saucily loquacious manager, Jose Mourinho, now have to be more concerned with stopping the rot, steadying the ship, getting the show back on the road... it's amazing how a mundane-sounding errand like that can send so many extra tremors of anticipation into a cup final audience.

If the organisers had any imagination they would keep the players and the referee on the pitch during the interval, like they used to do in rugby matches. This would prevent any half-time tunnel controversies of the sort that darkened Chelsea's Champions' League tie against Barcelona at the Nou Camp on Wednesday night.

Liverpool's manager, Rafael Benitez, would also avoid any accusations that he whispered to the ref: "My cousin Guiseppe knows where you live."

Anyone familiar with the ridiculous demands of the British football season expects even the best to suffer a blip. Chelsea were beginning to look as if they might avoid a stutter when they were hit by a series a rapid setbacks. Their aura of invincibility began to flicker when they lost Arjen Robben with a fractured foot. Then, last weekend, they were knocked out of the FA Cup by Newcastle United after Mourinho had gambled on trying to get a result with a weakened team.

The quadruple had been reduced to a treble. Not only that, Chelsea suffered an injury to Wayne Bridge that will keep him out for the rest of the season.

On the face of it, their 2-1 defeat in Barcelona was far from a disaster. The away goal they have to their credit gives them more than a fair chance in the return leg at Stamford Bridge, but defeat today might cause them to feel the rug move beneath their feet.

While endeavouring to relocate the tiller, Jose Mourinho would have found himself startled by headlines such as "Mourinho Myth Shattered". Even by our harsh standards, this is early for the dogs to start barking, but he did invite the U-turn of the eulogies. The marshalling of his troops on the field and his mastery of the bon mot machine-gun off it has taken the game by storm.

His verbal antics in Barcelona in mid-week, however, have served to redirect the storm into his own face. He made no friends by impudently, and wrongly, naming Barcelona's side before the match and conning everyone into believing that Damien Duff wouldn't play.

His allegations of the Barcelona coach, Frank Rijkaard, consorting with the referee, Anders Frisk, during the interval were ludicrous, but if they were an attempt to distract attention from the unambitious poverty of Chelsea's performance they succeeded. Nevertheless, the outcry drove him into silence, and it took a day or so before he was able to face the quote-takers on Friday. It was a familiar performance, totally unapologetic and typically mocking of his rivals Manchester United and Arsenal, who he said would gladly change places with Chelsea. "Who in the football world is in a better position than us?" he asked.

But the long-term Premiership front- runners may have to contend with a pursuer's feet closing on them. Despite United's uninspiring display against Milan at Old Trafford on Wednesday, Sir Alex Ferguson has not been slow to take heart from Chelsea's falter.

He claims that Chelsea are "grasping" for their form and that it won't be long before they are looking over their shoulders at both his team and Arsenal. "We have the experience of winning championships. Chelsea don't," he said, thereby bonding himself with his deadly rival Arsène Wenger.

Clearly, this battle of minds and wit is going to enliven the final stages of the season, which is just as well, because on last week's evidence a huge improvement is needed for us to make an impact on the Champions' League.

The only team in the equation who gathered added impetus from midweek are Liverpool, whose 3-1 home defeat of Bayer Leverkusen gives them an excellent chance of progress.

If they can continue their improvement today, with Steven Gerrard back and Fernando Morientes on his first big stage over here, they have a great chance. Their past successes at the Millennium Stadium have suggested that the stadium was built with them in mind. They'll be coming from the shadows to do it, but sometimes, as Mourinho might reflect, that's a good place to come from.

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