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Mindless Games and Burning Ambition

As we get towards the concluding and decisive matches of the season, Jose Mourinho is busy with his tiresome mind games whilst Brendan Rodgers seems content with his lot.

Poor Jose could feel it all fading. What could he do? Staring. Yes. That would work.
Poor Jose could feel it all fading. What could he do? Staring. Yes. That would work.
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno

All the way through this scribbler's time as a student, one repugnant phenomenon was omnipresent. On the morning of an exam, feeling vaguely bilious and giddy from nervous tension, one would always have to endure the scheming bookworms protesting ostentatiously about how little work they had done, usually to other studious types who were aggressively employing the same deflection tactic. The vapid chatter was stunningly vexatious. Like, oh my God, you guys, I have literally done nothing for this exam. I am SO dead.

As a man who worked hard but who still felt the need to pull caffeine-driven all-nighters before a test, this empty posturing left me feeling vaguely murderous. Everybody knew they were lying, preparing the ground should they only get 97% this time, but still the whole vacuous charade played out like a sub-standard daytime soap opera. You see, this was not Hodgsonian lowering of expectations in the hope of attaining the comparative victory of mediocrity. No, unlike the noted jowl massager, these individuals expected to win and wanted only to make their inevitable excellence seem even more wonderous.

Last night, recoiling from the latest tiresome attempt at Machiavellian media machination by Jose Mourinho, I was reminded of those horrid wretches with their cynical protestations of ignorance. It appears the celebrated eye-gouger is upset, dear readers. Owing to a handful of injuries and suspensions, he is now forced to actually use a few of the expensively assembled squad ornaments that rich Uncle Roman has lavished upon the club. Clearly, this kind of ignominy is difficult for the increasingly temperamental coach to cope with.

The only option, he told the assembled hacks, was to basically abandon the club's Premier League ambitions and select kids for the fixture with Liverpool on Sunday. The abject horror of needing to field serial winners like Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic is clearly too much to endure. Better to half-heartedly select some academy players and focus on the Champions League semi-final second leg against Atletico Madrid. In reality, Petr Cech and John Terry are likely to miss out, Eden Hazard may not be ready and Ramires' hearing is today. Outside of those players, the embarrassment of talent still available to the Portuguese manager is remarkable. Mourinho, though, sees it differently. He is in an awful bind, you see -- a badly wounded hero trying to survive the battle.

"I can't decide by myself," he lamented. "I have to listen to the club. I'm just the manager and I have to listen to the club. The fact that the match is on Sunday, I think that puts the problem not in my hands but in the hands of those who decide the game should be Sunday, not Saturday or Friday. We represent English football and are the only [English] team in European competition. Spain have four and give them all the conditions to try to have success. So I know what I would do. I would play the players who are not going to play on Wednesday. My priority is the Champions League. But I'm not the club. I have to speak to them. We had problems before the game and during the game. We lost four players – two with injuries and two with yellow cards – but we will fight. If we have to play the kids, we play the kids."

It's mind-numbingly obvious as a deflection ploy and yet Mourinho seems to think we are all bovine mouth-breathers who noddingly accept his every utterance. To be fair to the narcissistic chap, he is permanently surrounded by a fawning media and so perhaps he even partially believes his own guff at this point. Do not mistake me, I do not doubt that the most basic, rational part of his mind has prioritised the Champions League over the Premier League, but the idea that he has basically abandoned all hope of domestic success is laughable. On the most basic of levels, the famously preening attention junkie will not want to be schooled by former a apprentice like Brendan Rodgers.

The Carnlough man is in typically positive form ahead of the massive encounter on Sunday. When he first rolled into Anfield, people often mistook Rodgers' effusive ebullience as some kind of naive bluster but after overcoming a lot of bad fortune at the outset, he has proved to be a tremendous manager and exactly what Liverpool Football Club needed in so many ways, from the dugout to the press conference. There has been a notable dialling-down of the early brash predictions and he now almost playfully sticks to the same mantra as his captain and every Liverpool great of the past -- it's all about the next game.

Despite the most pressingly immediate of goals, life does not stand still at the top of professional football and when Rodgers recently met with John Henry, Tom Werner and FSG partner Mike Gordon, the talk was as much about the long-term future as it was about the potentially momentous short-term. In many ways the hoped-for has already been attained. Liverpool fans will be buying the Champions League patches to adorn their new Warrior kits next season. However, it is heartening to think that the club's American owners are sincere in their original promise to take the club forward and build towards consistent success.

"It was great to have the owners over," Rodgers insisted. "It was nice for them because it was such a huge game and obviously it was an emotional time around the Hillsborough anniversary. I think they saw the development of the club and of the team and they were very complimentary. It’s important for them to see that progress across the football club. They are absolutely delighted with what they’ve seen over the past 20 months and we talked about how we can keep the club moving forward because that’s vitally important.

"It’s been an ongoing process since I arrived here. We don’t want it to be just for this season, we want to sustain it over a longer period. That’s something that was pretty clear for us all in the discussions we had when I came in. We wanted to establish something that would be in place for a long time. If you want to be challenging on all fronts then you need depth in all departments."

We will all nod sagely at the notion of Liverpool "challenging on all fronts" but for now we can be forgiven for being a little more myopic. Victory over Chelsea at Anfield on Sunday would be be a massive psychological boost for Rodgers and his charges and leave the club's first top flight title in 24 years tantalisingly close. Unlike his duplicitous opposite number, Rodgers will not bother with chicanery. His team are ready. They are, he says, "taking on responsibility right across the field." They will need to, for despite Mourinho's guileful sophistry, Chelsea will be a formidable opponent and Rodgers' Redmen will need to play to their brilliant best.

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