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Saturday, Feb. 18, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

All eyes on Mourinho ahead of Barcelona-Chelsea showdown


LONDON -- As Jose Mourinho has won the domestic title in Portugal and England plus the UEFA Cup and Champions League with FC Porto, there would appear few tests left for the Chelsea manager to face.

Christopher Davies

But next Wednesday's Champions League tie against FC Barcelona will probably be the biggest challenge yet of Mourinho's temperament. The Portuguese has shown he can rarely resist a dig at the opposition or retaliating when he or his team are criticized, and the mind games ahead of the clash at Stamford Bridge have already started.

Last year, Chelsea beat Barcelona in UEFA's most prestigious club competition but in some ways it was a hollow victory. Mourinho accused Barca coach Frank Rijkaard of visiting the dressing room of referee Anders Frisk at halftime, and as UEFA found no evidence to support the allegation it handed Mourinho a two-game touchline ban.

In the wake of some less than flattering Mourinho comments about Frisk, the Swedish official announced his retirement from refereeing after receiving death threats.

Mourinho, who was on the Barca coaching staff under Sir Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal, is not the most popular person in Catalonia.

The Catalan press has already run the inevitable stories stoking up the heat before the tie. Chelsea's pitch, which resembles more of a beach than a playing surface for some of the worlds' finest players, has been "deliberately doctored."

The Londoners have allegedly made a £40 million bid for Samuel Eto'o, whose response was: "If we play Juventus no doubt Fabio Capello (the Italian club's coach) will be interested in me. The story is because of the closeness of the Chelsea game."

The test for Mourinho will come at the pre-match press conference when some loaded questions are sure to be asked in the wake of his excesses a year ago.

Will he be able to avoid the sort of pointed remark that will raise the pre-game temperature to boiling point?

The UEFA disciplinary evidence against the Portuguese was so damning -- "poisoning the atmosphere between the clubs" -- that Mourinho can count himself fortunate to have only been suspended for two games (he of course did not think he should have served any ban).

There were unproven stories about Eto'o being racially abused by a Chelsea steward, but all in all next week's game at the Bridge is one that almost requires a government health warning.

Though Barca goes into Saturday's Spanish League game against Real Betis with a six-point lead over second-place Valencia, it has lost its last two league games and has been eliminated from the King's Cup.

Eto'o is unconcerned by his team's mini-slump, saying its six-point advantage still represented a significant gap.

"We're under no pressure because we can lose twice while other teams can't," he said. "If Valencia slip up they would be nine points behind. And Real Madrid 10 . So who should be more worried?"

Barcelona welcomes back Ronaldinho, who was suspended for the defeats by Atletico Madrid and Valencia, while midfielder Deco has recovered from injury.

Away from the off-field battles, Chelsea versus Barcelona is a mouth-watering prospect -- the Premiership champion all power and precision but lacking the individual brilliance Ronaldinho, Eto'o and Leo Messi give the Catalans.

It is being billed as the best defense versus the best attack, but most of all we must hope whatever the outcome, there are none of the shenanigans of 2005. In this respect, however, breath should not be held.

ARSENAL travels to play Real Madrid, with manager Arsene Wenger admitting that a fourth-place finish and a Champions League qualifying spot is the limit of its Premiership ambitions in a disappointing season.

Wenger has been so successful during his 10 years at Highbury, bringing the Premiership some of the finest players English football has seen, that criticism of the Frenchman has been minimal, but the decision to sell Patrick Vieira to Juventus for £13 million last summer was always going to come back to haunt the Arsenal manager if things went wrong.

They have and it has.

Arsenal's young team has been hit by long-term injuries to Sol Campbell, Lauren and Ashley Cole that have disrupted the defensive unit, while the Gunners rely too heavily on Thierry Henry for goals.

"We are struggling for confidence at the moment," admitted Wenger whose team has the weekend off as it has been eliminated from the F.A. Cup.

Real will feel mixed emotions when it hosts Alaves on Saturday. The team was heartened by the rousing display which saw it beat Real Zaragoza 4-0 in the King's Cup semifinal, second-leg match last Tuesday, even though it was not enough to overturn a 6-1 deficit from the first leg.

Its elimination left it with the Spanish League and the Champions League to target as it attempts to win its first major trophy since 2003.

"After such an enormous effort, we want compensation. We have two competitions left and we have to keep going. The team is making spectacular progress. We have commitment, work, optimism and unity," said Madrid coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro whose team has won its last five league matches.

As Arsenal counts its walking wounded, Real may be boosted by the inclusion of captain Raul in the squad for the first time since he suffered a serious knee injury in November.

Inevitably the spotlight will be on Real's English duo David Beckham and Jonathan Woodgate as Arsenal travels to the Bernabeu.

Henry will also be in European football's biggest shop window and, if Arsenal fails to achieve even a Champions League qualifying place, the France striker, who is renegotiating his contract that runs to 2007, may reconsider his pre-Christmas announcement that he "wants to stay."

RAFAEL BENITEZ, the Liverpool manager, said before last Tuesday's 1-0 defeat of Arsenal that "the next three games in eight days will dictate the course of our season."

Liverpool meets Manchester United in the F.A. Cup on Saturday, and then continues its defense of the Champions League in Lisbon against Benfica next Tuesday.

"These next two games are very tough," said Benitez. "We want to get into the Champions League again, we want to win the F.A. Cup and we want to go to the European Cup final again, these are our targets so the next two matches are vital to our ambitions.

"We are champions of Europe and people can see we are progressing. And if we get back into the Champions League for next season, that will help us attract better players. To finish in the top four is very important financially for us as well as Arsenal. We know what finishing in the top four, staying in the Champions League and doing well in the F.A. Cup means in terms of money.

"It is a vicious circle. To gain access to the best players you have to be in the top four and in the Champions League, otherwise they will not come.

"We do our best not to think about these things because it will add to the pressure, but the reality is that only if we win and keep winning will we have the money we need to improve."

On the face of it Liverpool has the easiest Champions League task of the English trio, but then few expected Manchester United to be eliminated from a group that included Benfica.



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