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For a man who maintains he does not regard Liverpool as a particular rival, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has an oddly tart way of discussing them.
Nine previous meetings between the sides in the two seasons since their present managers took charge were incendiary enough that Liverpool’s Rafael Benitez has warned his players not to “pursue vendettas” in Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final at Old Trafford, but Mourinho on Friday insisted that bad blood existed only in the minds of the media.
It might seem that incidents such as the horrific challenge by Chelsea’s Michael Essien on Dietmar Hamann and Arjen Robben’s collapse when Liverpool goalkeeper José Reina raised an innocuous hand to his face would inevitably cast a shadow, but not to Mourinho.
“I didn’t see that last game at Stamford Bridge [when Robben’s collapse led to Reina’s dismissal] as explosive, just because of an incident five minutes from time,” he said.
“That was a game in which only one team played; the other team didn’t compete. We were coming from a bad defeat at Middlesbrough, the team was psychologically prepared and played very well. I don’t remember a single chance they had.
“It was one of those matches where we were by far the better team. It was an easy game. Only in England is it an explosive game.”
Yet Liverpool remember, as was made clear by Benitez’s caution against rev-enge. And so do Chelsea, judging by Mourinho’s in-stant reference to the Luis Garcia goal at Anfield that settled their Champions League semi-final last year. “They didn’t forget that they beat us with a no-score,” he snapped. “We have forgotten.”
A curiously paradoxical claim, although he seems to have forgotten that, while Garcia’s shot did not cross the line, had the goal not been awarded there would almost certainly have been a penalty and a red card for Petr Cech for his foul on Milan Baros in the build-up.
Geremi, a possible starter at right-back, at least acknowledged that the makings of a grudge were there. “As a player,” he said, “you have to forget the past.”
Yet proving their superiority over Liverpool may be a greater motivation to Chelsea than the prospect of a place in the FA Cup final. Although Liverpool have won just one of those nine meetings, the sense lingers that no other side have quite worked Chelsea out so well as they. A packed, hard-pressing midfield – the like of which prevented Chelsea scoring against them in their four Champions League encounters – can be expected again today.
While Mourinho would love to complete the full set of English domestic trophies in just his second year, he stressed that it was the Premiership that determined whether his season had been a success or not. He acknowledged, though, the FA Cup’s special place in the psyche of English football and expressed a frustration that he would not, this season at least, have the opportunity to lead his side in the first cup final at the new Wembley.
“It is the biggest final in cup competitions in the world,” Mourinho said, “and to be the first game at Wembley would have had special meaning. I’m very disappointed.”
If his gripe over Wembley was an attack on the English football authorities, it was at least veiled, but on diving, and proposals for stiffer sanctions against culprits, his scorn was undisguised.
“The problem,” he said, “is who decides the penalties. If it is the people who decide that Chelsea must play every Saturday after an international match, if it is the people who after every Champions League match make Chelsea play away, then I am very sad.”
When such trifles draw protest – particularly when he said in the same breath that “England is the most honest country in the world” – it is hard to believe there is not also a frostiness against Liverpool. There certainly seems to be against their captain Steven Gerrard, who decided against joining Chelsea last summer, with Mourinho insisting he would not pursue him were he to be available. “We have moved on,” he said.
Yet it is hard not to wonder whether he or Chelsea have. The words may be conciliatory, but the tone is not, and there must be a question about just how many grudges one man can bear.