There is an unspoken acceptance in sport that the representatives of both teams in a forthcoming competitive fixture will be allowed to articulate their unwavering certitude that they have the requisite skills and strength required to emerge victorious. There is, or at least so it seems to this bedraggled scribbler, an ongoing ontological crisis at the heart of sport, a kind of deliberate, desperate and entirely necessary insistence that one can be the best.
Of course, history is sprinkled with the stardust of exemplars who proved that winning against the odds is possible, and Liverpool Football Club's magnificent success in Istanbul ten tears ago has become a veritable paradigm of the never say die approach. Once such glorious precedents have been set, human nature will not let them go. Anyone can be a winner. Possibility is enough.
For the participants of tonight's semi-final second leg, however, "possibility" is very real and involves little or no self-deception. With the match delicately balanced at 1-1 and a host of talent available to the two managers, there are certainly justifiable grounds for belief for both Liverpool and Chelsea. Ostensibly, the Londoners, led by their irksome Machiavellian maestro, are the favourites. Directly after the first leg, in an almost comically obvious display of his beloved and tiresome mind games, the Portuguese schemer mentioned the words Stamford and Bridge repeatedly in his post-match interview. The message was clear -- we don't lose at home.
Sadly for Mourinho, if there is one man in world football as adroit in the art of guff, it is his birthday buddy, Brendan Rodgers. The Antrim man's media patter may lack the mordacious malevolence of his counterpart but his inoffensive loquaciousness is no less calculating. Why use one cutting phrase, reasons Rodgers, when one can employ a miscellany of eloquent expressions? The Chelsea boss, however, is straight to business, never missing an opportunity to land a blow to his opponent. Liverpool, he insists, despite their clear defensive improvement, have a weak underbelly. His team simply failed to wander into the acres of space afforded them by Rodgers' ill-judged three-at-the-back formation. It was Chelsea's negligence and not Liverpool's excellence, he posited, which denied the league leaders victory.
"Liverpool gave a lot of space," he insisted. "They play with three defenders. The full-backs are wide. We could hurt them much more than we did there. I was frustrated [in the first leg] because normally our midfield is full of quality after losing the ball. We recovered the ball, lost the ball, recovered the ball, lost the ball -- when I saw enough space to score more goals. He [Raheem Sterling] scored a fantastic goal but I didn't see too much more than that," Mourinho said. "I think Chelsea played very well defensively. In that action [of scoring] he was fantastic and we made a couple of mistakes the way we approached that situation."
Needless to say, Rodgers has a politely contradictory viewpoint. Emphasising the need for courageousness, he insists, not unreasonably, that his charges are more than adequately equipped to win the day and indeed, if Liverpool are to have an opportunity to add another shiny pot to the burgeoning Anfield trophy cabinet, they will have to bring not only their recently miserly attitude to the concession of goals but also their best high-tempo aggressiveness in attack. Simply put, Liverpool must play to their strengths and they must do so without trepidation.
"We’re playing with confidence and we know our retention and speed in the game can hurt any opponent," the manager averred. "Winning at Stamford Bridge would be important because it would be the final step towards getting to Wembley. If you do that there’s no greater reward than winning it but you’ve got to get there first and that’s the aim. The message to the players will be to go out and have no fear. We respect the opponent of course because they’re a very good team but we’ve got nothing to fear in the game."
Irrespective of his side's mental fortitude, the Liverpool gaffer is convinced that they are on the up -- his own self-fulfulling prophecy about how his teams always come good in the latter half of campaigns seems to be taking hold. If his always upbeat words are to be believed, he particularly relishes the face-off with Mourinho, a man whose record of success the 42 year old must envy. Rodgers, an undeniably fine manager in his own right, is unwaveringly depicted as the apostle, the apprentice to the Portuguese egotist's master. One can only imagine how that must gall him. Worryingly, the Liverpool boss seems to have adopted the expressions of his foreign peers in his attempts to emerge from Mourinho's shadow.
"We’re a team that’s in a good moment," Rodgers stressed, channeling his inner Ancelotti. "We’re playing well, we’re working well and we know we can go there and win. I always say it’s really about the teams but knowing Jose and how he works and how competitive he is, I really enjoy that challenge of going up against him. The game last week was fantastic and we were at a really good level. I enjoy the competitiveness of the game. Jose’s record speaks for itself. He’s a world class manager and he’ll always have that competitive edge and your teams have to be at the maximum to get a result.
"I think they’ll be aware of the attacking threat we have in the team and the pace we have in the team. Obviously as the home side you’d expect them to have more possession and open up the spaces a bit more but I think it’ll be a game where both teams will look to be solid defensively and look to attack from there. Chelsea being at home they’ll be the team that wants to get on the front foot."
At Stamford Bridge tonight, Liverpool and Chelsea will play yet another semi final and renew this most recent and vexatious of rivalries. Even the least engagé of i-Pad wielding Londoners will be whipped up into a plastic flag waving frenzy for this particular occasion and from the fervid and possibly poisonous atmosphere one side will continue their journey toward silverware whilst the other will question the faith that convinced them they would be victors. The tortured introspection won't last, however. This is football and there's a game on Saturday which they'll believe they can win.