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Feb 19, 2007

Jose's priority is glory in Athens

In the rhetoric of manager-speak, teams routinely attempt to win each competition they are in. Publicly prioritising one is a dangerous tactic that could prompt discussions concerning their failure to progress in it and make success elsewhere seem very much a consolation prize.

At Chelsea, Jose Mourinho's task has hardly been made easier by Michael Essien's insistence that they can do a quadruple. For the Portuguese, however, one trophy is surely valued above all others this season. It is the one that accounts for his startling rise: the Champions League. Despite his domestic dominance at Porto, it was his European exploits that caught the eye of Roman Abramovich.

And manager and owner may be in rare harmony in their preference. The Russian's recruitment of Andriy Shevchenko to join Michael Ballack, both with a superb pedigree in the Champions League but unaccustomed to English football, suggested as much.

While the clinical manner in which Chelsea achieved back-to-back Premiership titles is admirable, it has not included a match remotely comparable with Liverpool's startling triumph in Istanbul. So what do you buy the man who can buy everything? Excitement: adrenalin may be something that only football, and winning the Champions League in particular, can provide.

Mourinho's motives are very different. Victory in the Athens final would emulate Ottmar Hitzfeld, who managed Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich to Champions League titles. In one respect, it would surpass the German: to win it with clubs from two very different countries and contrasting situations - of extreme wealth and comparative poverty - would also count for more than a third successive Premiership title.

It would also enable him to issue Abramovich with an ultimatum from the strongest possible position: either he gets the billionaire's unqualified backing or he departs, his CV enhanced by proof he could replicate his achievements at Porto in the pressure cooker atmosphere of Chelsea. Should he decide to go, he can leave the warring factions and Abramovich's cabal of advisors - Peter Kenyon, Piet de Visser, Frank Arnesen and co - to divert their attention from competing to sign players to attempting to agree on a replacement manager.

A personal incentive may date from Porto's final win in Gelsenkirchen in 2004. In typically melodramatic style, Mourinho refused to celebrate. It was a sign that, mentally, he had moved on. Three years on, his reaction could be very different or, indeed, identical, if he intends to take his leave once more.

Win it and Mourinho will top shortlists everywhere, whether AC or Inter Milan, Real Madrid or even Barcelona, should a vacancy arise at his former club.

Outside England, a Champions League victory camouflages other failings. Rafael Benitez's achievement in taking an otherwise unimpressive Liverpool team to the unlikeliest of triumphs in 2005 gives him unlimited capital in his native Spain.

And it will not have escaped Mourinho that individual improvement can be measured on the continental stage, as it was three seasons ago with Deco, Maniche, Costinha and Ricardo Carvalho, their careers transformed under his guidance. Didier Drogba's European record was mediocre in his first two seasons at Stamford Bridge; now he is the Champions League's joint top scorer. Essien, banned for his reckless tackle on Dietmar Hamann, did not appear in the knockout stages last season; now he is poised to rank alongside any midfielders in the competition.

Mourinho's priorities could become clearer if his side advance further. With an undernourished squad and the possibility that Chelsea will not be fuelled by the return of the Coles, Joe and Ashley, this season, it would be instructive if he spared his players Premiership games. He has always appreciated the Carling Cup, presumably because it allows him to pocket some silverware as soon as possible, and the FA Cup has eluded him thus far. A particularly generous draw has allowed him to rotate in the FA Cup so far, but, depending on results, the Premiership could even be his smallest concern.

And comparatively few of the genuine contenders may put the Champions League first. Were his private thoughts accessible, Sir Alex Ferguson may admit the Premiership is his major goal. For a man absorbed by the competition and one-upmanship inherent in local rivalries, finishing first would restore the feeling of supremacy he covets.

Internazionale, whose only Scudetto since 1989 was a tainted title, awarded to them after coming third, would surely prefer to win it without immediate references to the calciopoli scandal.

An Italian focus on domestic matters is nothing new; at Juventus, Fabio Capello's focus on the Scudetto was such that he was prepared to run his first-choice 11 into the ground to build up massive leads in Serie A, perhaps aided by compliant referees, but with the consequence that collective exhaustion had set in by the Champions League quarter-finals.

Now Juventus, like fellow two-time winners Nottingham Forest, are focused on promotion. Now Capello, at Real Madrid, will take solace wherever he can find it but, like Bayern Munich, he may regard qualification for next season's Champions League as his major aim.

Barcelona's premier focus has tended to be on La Liga and it is only in spells of hegemony on the home front, first under Johan Cruyff and now Frank Rijkaard, that the Champions League becomes the ultimate goal.

It is, too, for Lyon, cruising towards a sixth title in Ligue 1. Conquering Europe is starting to reach the status of a holy grail for the consistent quarter-finalists, as it is for Arsenal, where Arsene Wenger's standing as a visionary would be rubber-stamped if his futuristic side surpass the team of 2006 and win in Athens.

Jose Mourinho knows his own future could be determined by it, too. His first Champions League title elevated him to the elite and enabled him to manage the world's wealthiest club. A second would give him enviable options among the biggest.


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