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A little over a year after his arrival, Jose Mourinho is becoming easier to read. His compliments tend to have a patronising underside (would he be so consistently pleasant about Sir Alex Ferguson if he still saw Manchester United as a realistic threat?), while his sneers tend to reveal a concern.
On Wednesday night, after his Chelsea side had survived two good shouts for penalties to draw against Liverpool in the Champions League, the lip was metaphorically curled and the scorn was dripping.
“They played to [Peter] Crouch, which some people like and some people don’t like,” Mourinho said. “Some people criticise the direct way, some people love it, but they didn’t create much.”
The translation of which, pretty clearly, is that Liverpool play ugly, ineffectual football, and you would be a fool to be impressed by it.
Earlier he had claimed that Liverpool “do not play with open hearts”, as though to try to shame them into a simpler, more characteristically English – and more beatable – approach. The implication of all of which was that if Rafael Benitez would like to change his system for Sunday’s Premiership reprise at Anfield, Mourinho would be very grateful.
Yet Benitez’s record against Mourinho is not, on the face of it, that impressive: six games between the two have brought three wins for Chelsea, one for Liverpool and two goalless draws. Benitez, though, is unbeaten in the last three meetings; two games could have been swung in Liverpool’s favour had penalties that were evident on television been awarded; and one of those Chelsea victories, in the Carling Cup Final, was achieved only after a Steven Gerrard own goal and extra-time.
Liverpool hardly qualify as Chelsea’s nemesis but they have posed the champions problems more consistently than any other English side, with the possible exception of, perversely, Manchester City.
Last season, City were the only team to beat Chelsea in the Premiership and they drew at Stamford Bridge as well. Their then manager, Kevin Keegan, will never be remembered as a great tactician, but it was he who happened upon a way of disrupting Chelsea by using a deep-lying forward – in his case, Antoine Sibierski – to man-mark Claude Makelele.
“Cut off the head and the body can’t move,” Vittorio Pozzo, the great Italian coach of the 1930s advised, and, while it may seem counter-intuitive to attempt to stifle a defensive midfielder, it is Makelele, with the swiftness and accuracy of his passing, who sets Chelsea’s rhythm. Targeting him will never have the dramatic effect that, say, George Graham’s decision to man-mark Chris Waddle had when Arsenal beat Sheffield Wednesday in two cup finals in 1993, but against a side of Chelsea’s all-round quality any chink must be exploited to the maximum.
Arsenal tried the same ploy at Stanford Bridge this season, with Robert Pires taking the marking role, and it was only a fortuitous bobble off Didier Drogba’s shin that denied them a draw. Liverpool’s system is slightly different, involving not so much direct marking as a dynamic three-man central midfield, designed to press high up the pitch, with Gerrard slightly advanced to occupy Makelele.
On Wednesday, the full-backs Steve Finnan and Djimi Traore gave good enough support to the wide players, Djibril Cisse and Luis Garcia, that Chelsea’s wingers Damien Duff and Arjen Robben were forced back into a more defensive role, frequently leaving Drogba isolated.
Other teams, of course, have played a variant of 4-5-1 against Chelsea; the difference is the tempo with which Liverpool were able to do it – and there must be a doubt as to whether they can do it in successive games four days apart. Benitez, though, was upbeat after Wednesday, laughing off Mourinho’s barbs. “There is no side more direct than Chelsea,” he said. “I watched their game against Bayern Munich in last season’s Champions League and I have not seen so many long balls since the 80s. No one can accuse us of playing too direct on Wednesday. Our midfield got the better of them.”
Liverpool have already become the first side to avoid defeat against Chelsea this season; if that midfield trio has the upper hand again on Sunday, they may just become the first team to beat them.