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Chelsea search for silver lining
February 25, 2005
The worst week Chelsea have endured in the reign of coach Jose Mourinho could have a silver lining under the closed roof of the Millennium Stadium when they face Liverpool in the English League Cup final on Sunday.
The charismatic Portuguese coach has made a spectacular impact at Stamford Bridge since taking over in June, steering the club to within sight of a first league title since 1955.
Striker Didier Drogba's harsh red card in the Nou Camp, accusations of the referee talking to Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard and rumours of tunnel bust-ups are hardly an ideal way to prepare for a major final as serious questions begin to be asked about Chelsea's nerve.
Victory in Cardiff and a first trophy in the era of Russian billionaire owner Roman Abramovich would be the perfect answer for those waiting for the big-spending Londoners to crumble.
The League Cup would have rated as Mourinho's fourth priority this season, but their slump in form and a showdown with the competition's most successful club has suddenly elevated its status.
Liverpool, winners a record seven times, are also looking for their first silverware under a new coach.
Former Valencia coach Rafael Benitez has had a difficult debut season at Anfield as his side have failed to mount a title challenge, losing 1-0 twice to Chelsea, while they were humbled by Burnley in the FA Cup.
Tuesday's impressive 3-1 defeat of Bayer Leverkusen in the last 16 of the Champions League offered encouragement of better times to come, although realistically Sunday's meeting with Chelsea is their one chance of a trophy this season.
"My challenge is to win more important trophies than the League Cup, but I see this as a first step," Spaniard Benitez said this week. "This is hopefully the first stone of a new building."
Their chances will depend largely on inspirational midfielder Steven Gerrard and his duel with Chelsea's driving force and fellow England international Frank Lampard.
Liverpool-born Gerrard has been subject to rumours linking him with a move to Chelsea next season, although a victory on Sunday and a strong finish to the season might just persuade him that he can realise his ambitions with his hometown club.
"It would be a massive thing for me to lift that cup in Cardiff," the Liverpool captain, who scored in the League Cup final victory over Manchester United two years ago, told the club's website this week.
"I'm sure if we win you'll see exactly what it means by the look on my face."
Mourinho has won plaudits for fielding strong sides throughout a competition that the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United, and to some extent Liverpool, have devalued by playing B teams.
"We want to win every competition we are in," the Chelsea coach said earlier this season as his side embarked on an unlikely quadruple quest for honours in their centenary season.
That quest hit the rocks at Newcastle last weekend, a match that Chelsea ended with 10 men after second-choice goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini was sent off.
Cudicini has been Chelsea's "cup keeper" this season, but his dismissal means that he misses out and first-choice Petr Cech will be on duty in Cardiff.
While it is a personal shame for Cudicini, Mourinho's main concern will be the way his side have struggled to score goals since flying Dutchman Arjen Robben broke his foot in the league victory at Blackburn Rovers earlier this month.
The only Chelsea player to score in the four games since Robben's injury is Eidur Gudjohnsen, although with Ivorian Drogba back from a thigh injury and Irish winger Damien Duff let loose, the odds are stacked in favour of Chelsea ending their mini-crisis in style.