Liverpool go into tonight’s Champions League semi-final match at Anfield a goal down to the Russian playboy’s plaything, but Rafa is considered by many to be way ahead of his Chelsea counterpart on the psychological front.
The simple facts for tonight are that Liverpool could take it to extra time if they can score one goal without reply before the ninety minutes are up. No more goals in extra time then it all goes down to penalties. Any goal at all from Chelsea however would leave Liverpool needing to score at least three and Jose Mourinho has used that fact to try and send a message to Anfield that this will be too much of a task for the Reds.
Three is a memorable number for Liverpool though. In 2005 they won the Champions League despite being 3-0 down at half-time in the final. On their way to the final they were in a situation where they needed to score three times without reply in the second half of their last group game against Olympiakos, a feat nobody expected them to pull off, but thanks to goals from Sinama-Pongolle, Neil Mellor and Steven Gerrard they were on their way to glory. Rafa’s hopes they won’t need three tonight, but doesn’t think that’s a mountain to high to climb if it does come down to that: “For me, it's better if we don't concede, but we know we can score more than one goal. If we need to score three, okay, we have experience against Olympiakos.”
Rafa wasn’t happy with the performance his side put in last week, he knows they weren’t playing to the best of their abilities and is banking on them putting that right tonight: “I know we were not playing at our level last week. That's the key for the second leg. If we play to our level I'm sure we will win.”
Liverpool played last week’s game at Stamford Bridge on the attack for much of the game, Chelsea seemingly playing a game to avoid conceding the away goal, hoping to get a goal on the counter. Now Mourinho claims they’ll come out of their shells in this game and play to score. He claims it anyway: “We will attack. We know if we don’t concede we are in the final so to not concede is an objective, but we also know if we score goals we have an advantage as we didn’t concede at home.”
He admits that trying to defend against Liverpool for 90 minutes would be a mistake: “If this game was about 10 minutes, then we’d defend but the game is 90 minutes and you can’t defend all the time. The best way to play this game is to scare the opponent and we’ll try to do that.” So is he planning to arrive wearing a scary mask? He doesn’t need one really: “Part of our game must be to scare and score when we have the ball.”
Last week Mourinho had a go at Liverpool claiming they were only any good in knockout football and complained about how hard-done-to his own team were. He complained about how he couldn’t change his team because they were still in the hunt for the league title. On Saturday he did change his team though, and now they are no longer in the hunt for the league title. He’s still not happy with this injustice: “One-nil is a lead and at a knockout stage that’s a good lead but we have 90 minutes to play and the opposition are at home, a team with one week to rest and prepare for this game against another team that had to play only days ago and had to fight physically and mentally in the title race.” Last week, he said Liverpool were favourites to win the tie, but not now: “I don’t see either team as being favourites,” he claimed.
There are many stats against Liverpool going into this game, but all good stats must come to an end, like this one: “Every time we play Liverpool while winning, we get results,” said Mourinho, “When we score first, we win. We are 1-0 up, so we have good reason to have self-belief for the tie.”
One major influencing factor that is against Chelsea – whether they like it or not – is the Anfield crowd. Despite recent denials from some of those at Chelsea about how intimidating it is, the Chelsea captain John Terry has admitted how he felt Liverpool’s fans were better than Chelsea’s. He said this on their own website: “As players, we can always do better. It’s the same with the fans. The game at Anfield was a huge one, and made us realise what the fans can do to influence the ref. Get on his back from the first decision, really make some noise, that sort of thing. The Chelsea fans are great but, like I said, we can always do more.”
Frank Lampard, nicknamed “Fat” by Liverpool fans, tried hard to sound hard about the Anfield sound: “Despite what people say, we were not intimidated by the atmosphere at Anfield and we won't be intimidated by it now.” Not what his captain says: “All of us found it a bit of a shock that night,” said Terry of the 2005 semi, “It was one of the most impressive atmospheres I've played in and credit to the Liverpool fans for that, especially the Kop. They made it a memorable night, something special.”
At least Terry is honest.
Rafa Benítez, on great form at the press conference yesterday, used his admiration of the Liverpool fans to have a dig at Jose’s self-proclaimed “Special One” tag: “Our supporters – they are the special ones. We don't need to talk about our supporters, it's enough just to hear them. At Stamford Bridge, we won in the stands; that was clear.” Liverpool fans have collected scarves and flags over many years of successful campaigns at home and abroad, but Chelsea actually give little flags out free of charge to their fans in the hope of creating a bit of an atmosphere. Rafa had a dig at this too: “The other supporters were with their flags, but our supporters were with their hearts. We don't need to give flags. It's easy for us.”
On a roll, Rafa continued: “Our fans cannot give red cards or award penalties, but they can score goals. I like this about our supporters because we know they will show they are the best in the world again tomorrow night.”
And Rafa mustn’t have heard John Terry’s comments: “I am sure you will see that Anfield is very difficult for Chelsea. They can say they've experienced it before, they can say it's not a problem, but it will be a problem for them. We are playing against a very good team, but we have confidence, and playing with 12 men is easy!”
Of course Rafa doesn’t assume the game will be easy, but he was working hard to dispel some of the myths Jose Mourinho was trying to create. Last week’s comments from Mourinho even included a claim that Liverpool – the most successful club in English history – had no history to look back on. Rafa mentioned this in the middle of more praise for the fans: “It’s something that was so clear,” said Rafa. “If you know the history of our club, you don’t need to say anything else. Our supporters will have the last word. It’s easier for me. I don’t need to give a team talk now.”
Mourinho didn’t quite go as far as Frank Lampard by denying the team of two years ago were rattled by the Kop, but he did try to play it down: “A great atmosphere is always good for the home team, and can be hostile for the away team. It depends on the player’s character but at this level a hostile atmosphere can be extra motivation for players with a lot of experience. I don’t see Claude Makelele not sleeping tonight because of the atmosphere tomorrow. Everybody in football wants a great atmosphere, and Liverpool fans always provide a good atmosphere.”
Mourinho was trying hard to backtrack on his comments about Liverpool’s past when he was sitting at Anfield for the press conference yesterday, perhaps mindful of how his words often come back to haunt him: “The fans have to be happy with me because of my comments. Last week, I said it was impossible to compare Liverpool and Chelsea because Liverpool has a history of success in Europe and Chelsea doesn’t, so I think tomorrow I would deserve some big applause. That is what I think; I have great respect for a great club like Liverpool.” Not quite what he said last week.
If Mourinho’s claims about his players being tired are true – and there’s nothing like telling the world that your players are tired to sew the idea into their minds – Chelsea may be in for a tough night: “It will be really difficult for Chelsea,” says Benitez. “We’ll want a high tempo from the beginning until the end. I don’t know whether we can maintain it, but we can try.”
Rafa had an answer to how he feels about the never-ending digs from Jose Mourinho: “We have a phrase in Spain, ‘no ofende quien quiere sino quien puede’ which means you can talk, but it’s not offensive for me because you cannot offend me.” Like our own ‘Sticks and stones’ saying then, And Rafa thinks the digs will spur the Reds and the Reds fans on all the more: “Now, our supporters will be more focused and more behind their team. I have a lot of respect for their club, but this is one person talking. It doesn’t bother me.”
Nobody believes much of what Jose Mourinho says, but there are some absences expected tonight, including the supposedly dropped Andrey Shevchenko. One of those missing is Ricardo Carvalho. Mourinho claims that makes it clear how Rafa will play: “I think they’ll play with Peter Crouch and go more direct. Rafa is a good manager, he knows Carvalho won’t be playing and I think he is intelligent to play Crouch, it’s normal and obvious. We know that and will have to do our best.”
He’s also unsurprised at Rafa’s comments that Liverpool will be trying to play at high tempo: “They will try and score in the beginning and have a strong and fast game but they know that a Chelsea goal will kill the other side. 1-0 is not 3-0 or 4-0 so maybe they can play with defensive control and try and get the goal. Their team will be Peter Crouch plus 10.”
With the biggest transfer budget of perhaps any team in the world, it’s seems something is wrong if Chelsea are having serious worries about the odd missing player. But they are, unless Mourinho is lying: “Carvalho was our best defender for the whole season, he had played in every game at a high level, and didn’t have Petr Cech behind him for part of season and no John Terry beside him for part and no Michael Essien in front for part, he was the man and the pillar, so to miss him in such a big game is a big blow. But we have other players and solutions and we have to play our game and try to score goals.”
One player Liverpool could have done with being absent is Didier Drogba, but he’s fit and – as yet – unsuspended: “Didier is in good form, Liverpool have good defenders, they play a lot of offside,” said the Chelsea boss, with another little dig. “That’s one of their qualities, but Didier is powerful. He did really well at Stamford Bridge and at Anfield last season.”
A defeat for Liverpool tonight will bring the Reds’ season to an end. For Chelsea there’s still a vague chance of the league, and an FA Cup final, but this is the trophy they really want above all the others. The lost points on Saturday still hurt them, despite what was said, and Mourinho has to pick his players up from that poor result: “I’m not expecting a big reaction because of Saturday. Saturday was the Premiership. Now it’s the Champions League and I don’t think they can be related and there won’t be a reaction. You couldn’t have a bigger motivation than to play in a Champions League final and the players know it’s only one game away now.”
Just in case it does go wrong tonight, Mourinho reminded his fans about the FA Cup: “We have a great FA Cup final to look forward to, so this is not our game of the season. But it would be a great achievement to get to the final, especially for a club without a great history of success in Europe.”
Soon the talking will be over – for ninety minutes at least – and the two coaches can do what they’re actually paid to do.