History to win out at Wembley

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The page is blank, and the annals are there to be written. All finals offer the chance of immortality; Saturday’s guarantees it. The first booking, the first goal, the first winners: all will be noted down for posterity.

As Chelsea and Manchester United approach the first FA Cup final at the new Wembley, they are not so much feeling the hand of history on their shoulders, as having history leading them by the nose.

Fate could not oblige by delivering West Ham against Bolton and a repeat of 1923, the first final at the old Wembley, but it has at least engineered a meeting between the two best teams in the country, and another episode in the remarkable soap opera of Jose Mourinho. This, specifically, is about his relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson.

It is one of those great master-pupil stories, the young buck rising to take on the old master. Just as the influence of Tom Cruise inspired Paul Newman in The Color of Money, so Mourinho seems to have reinvigorated Ferguson.

In the first two seasons after Mourinho’s arrival, he and Ferguson got on famously. They spoke of their mutual admiration, and enjoyed an extended joke about the quality of the wine they gave each other after matches.

With United reduced to worrying merely about Champions League qualification, vintage Glaswegian and fruity Portuguese seemed a perfect blend, both devoted to derailing Arsenal. Ferguson liked Mourinho because he seemed even better than he was at getting under Arsène Wenger’s skin. Only this season, as United emerged as Chelsea’s main rivals, have the two turned on each other.

After some bizarre rants from Mourinho about conspiracies against Chelsea, and a nasty personal attack on Cristiano Ronaldo for the supposed inadequacies of his upbringing, Ferguson was finally moved to respond, saying Mourinho had “respect only for himself”, and outlining the damage he felt he was doing.

“Once you bring that kind of suspicion into our game, which is the most honest in the world, then we are finished,” Ferguson said.

One of the most unsavoury aspects of this season has been the readiness of the Stamford Bridge crowd to cry cheat as soon as a decision goes against them; at other grounds the assumption remains that referees making mistakes are simply incompetent. That is something that can only come from Mourinho’s lead.

This week, though, Mourinho seems to have been calculatingly conciliatory. The story of him being arrested while attempting to stop his Yorkshire terrier being taken into quarantine seemed beyond satire, but then Mourinho took the sense of surreality to new heights when he spoke of his desire that the Cup final should be free from “diving and provocation”, which for him is a bit like a boxer hoping his next bout will be free of all that nasty punching.

It was, presumably, a calculated dig at Ronaldo, winner of both the footballers’ and football-writers’ player of the year awards, but by Mourinho’s standards, it was uncharacteristically subtle.

That perhaps is indicative of a general flatness about Chelsea. It is not just that a run of five games without a win that saw their Champions League and Premiership dreams wither has taken the wind out of their sails; it is the reasons behind that run. They look fatigued and they sound fatigued, something evidenced and exacerbated by their injury problems.

Mourinho was joking when he spoke of using the third-choice goalkeeper Hilario as a reserve striker, but, as ever with him, there was some truth behind the quip. Andriy Shevchenko, Michael Ballack and, most crucially, defender Ricardo Carvalho are all out and, while United will have to do without Louis Saha, they look by far the fresher side.

Chelsea have the end of an era feel from which United seemed to be suffering a year or two ago. They must hope that the prospect of new glory at the new Wembley will give them new life.

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