Tiago quick to tune in to the ugly and the beautiful

Portuguese midfielder keen to fulfil Mourinho's prediction that he will become a great player
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The Independent Online

"We can't concede goals," says Tiago Mendes and, for a moment, it seems that the Portuguese international has chosen too strong a phraseology in trying to explain his role in the Chelsea midfield. But he really does mean "can't". It's not a case of trying not to concede. The instructions from his coach, Jose Mourinho, are clear. No goals. Full stop.

"We can't concede goals," says Tiago Mendes and, for a moment, it seems that the Portuguese international has chosen too strong a phraseology in trying to explain his role in the Chelsea midfield. But he really does mean "can't". It's not a case of trying not to concede. The instructions from his coach, Jose Mourinho, are clear. No goals. Full stop.

So far, and six games into the season, the Chelsea players have erred just once, and even then it took a wonderfully opportunistic strike by Southampton's James Beattie to inflict the damage. Tiago played in that match and has featured in every game, once fit, following his surprise £8m transfer from Benfica.

The 23-year-old from the Costa Verde, to the north of Portugal, has been a revelation. Composed yet combative, creative yet defensively fierce, Tiago has assimilated with astonishing ease into the pell-mell pace of the Premiership. "It's not been a problem," he says. "The biggest problem is the food - and speaking English. My English is not so good. But I like the challenge."

Fortunately he has now found the right restaurants. And his English - learnt at school - is, in fact, excellent, and has helped him and his wife, Barbara, to settle in to life in London, where they have already bought a flat and enjoy "walking in the parks".

Settling in has also been eased by the presence of so many other Portuguese - 10 in all - at Chelsea. "In Portugal, right now, Chelsea is almost a team like Porto, Benfica and Sporting [Lisbon]," Tiago explains. "So Chelsea is talked about a lot." There is Mourinho, of course, plus four of his backroom staff, all imported from Porto in the summer. Then there are the fellow players, Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira, and "even in the reserves as well there are two Portuguese", says Tiago. "We are almost at home and it's also a help for my wife, as Paulo and Ricardo are married too. Often we all have lunch together."

They have plenty to talk about. "This is a very competitive championship," says Tiago. "Very hard and with many big players. In Portugal, normally, it's easier for the big teams, especially at home. The football is more relaxed, more technical and perhaps the players are not so competitive. Here it's difficult everywhere."

The away matches against Birmingham City - his debut - and Aston Villa made a deep impression. "I watched a lot of [Premiership] games in Portugal last season, but I had no idea it was so competitive. The football is so much more physical, there is more contact, and the ball is in the air more. Sometimes the game is ugly. But it's English football. It's exciting. In Portugal and Spain you have more space to play. Here you don't have the space. You have to think fast. For me, that's not a big problem, as I play one touch, two touch." It also helps that amid this maelstrom he is, he says, "a calm guy" off the pitch too.

Mourinho knew all about Tiago - not least because he was part of the Benfica team who last season denied Porto back-to-back domestic trebles by winning the Portuguese Cup. Mourinho liked what he saw and, when still in Portugal, promised that he would turn a "good player into a great one". Tiago liked that statement too. "It can only be good for me," he says. "I know that I'm learning every day. I hope to learn more, and it is my desire to be a great player." His reasons for joining Chelsea are simple. "Mourinho wanted me, so I came," Tiago says.

Out of what he says is respect he is reluctant to discuss too much the methods used by Mourinho - whom he describes as "the king of coaches". But training at Chelsea follows a simple philosophy. "It's about possession," says Tiago, who acknowledges that it is not always the first thought in English football - or among the demands of the fans. "It's the aim of the coach and maybe that takes another mentality," he says. "We have to keep the ball, to play. English teams want to get it forward fast, to score a goal. But we have to keep it more. For me that's football, that's normal, but it doesn't happen so much in England."

It does in Europe, and Tiago recalls with a smile his midweek Champions' League debut against Paris Saint-Germain, which resulted in a 3-0 victory. "We played a beautiful game," he says. "It's difficult to play like that in England, but it was fantastic. I want to play in the final."

One man who has been there, of course, is Mourinho. "It's great to work with a coach who wins everything," Tiago says. He also welcomes the competition from within the squad. "Mourinho told me I had to work a lot if I was going to play because there were already so many great players," Tiago says. "And I have worked a lot and, for now, I'm an option for Mourinho and that makes me very happy. But I know that Alexei [Smertin], Scott Parker and Gérémi are fantastic players. I know, too, that I am a good player, but I have to keep working hard every day. So I do."

Indeed, Chelsea were not the only team in for his services - an offer was made by Barcelona, who ended up taking Deco instead, and although Tiago admits that Benfica preferred him to join Chelsea "because of the money", it was his choice too. "I told the president [of Benfica] that I wanted to come here," he says. Even if Mourinho wasn't the coach, Tiago says, and Chelsea had wanted him, he would still have moved.

Nevertheless, it was a tortuous transfer which almost collapsed at the last minute because of the contractual demands made by Benfica, who, in their annoyance, accused Tiago of being a money-grabber only also to declare that they would take him back at any time. It was a bewildering time. "A day of desper-ation," Tiago calls it before he was finally allowed to board the plane for Chelsea's pre-season tour to the United States.

It was there that he first met his midfield partner, Frank Lampard, who today against Tottenham Hotspur creates a new Premiership record of playing in 114 consecutive matches. Tiago knew of Lampard, having watched him in Euro 2004. Tiago was a member of the Portugal squad, and was later called up for the Olympics, much to Mourinho's annoyance, before pulling out with a groin injury. In the Euro tournament he did not add to his 10 caps because of the outstanding form of Maniche. "I have to wait for my opportunity," he says. Tiago has grasped it at Chelsea and is relishing his partnership with Lampard, who is the player who has impressed him the most. "He's just fantastic," Tiago says. "It's easy to play alongside him."

Last season, Lampard scored 15 goals from midfield. Tiago, also, was prolific, scoring 13 times for Benfica. So far this term both have got one each, the Portuguese scoring with a brilliant piece of skill against Crystal Palace, Lampard with a penalty against Southampton. More goals will come, as Chelsea showed in Paris, but Tiago maintains that the priority will remain clear.

"We want to win," he says. "That's the most important, and we play well. I think that people say we play defensively but that's not true. But to win we must not concede goals, and that's very important. I know that in England people like results like 4-2 or 3-1, but to win 1-0 is enough. So that's our mentality. To win."

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