Sports

Exploring Jose Mourinho’s Special Relationship With The League Cup

While other managers tend to neglect England’s third most prestigious domestic competition, the Special One respects its prosaic power. What’s more, it usually serves him well in return.

by Will Magee
Feb 24 2017, 3:04pm

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This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Disregarding the shaky defensive showing, there's an argument to be made for the 2005 League Cup Final being the textbook Jose Mourinho performance. With his new club winning their first major trophy for five years, Chelsea's display had everything: physicality across the pitch, leadership and tenacity from front to back, antagonism on the sidelines, and success and silverware at the end. When, in the aftermath of an equalising own goal from Steven Gerrard, Mourinho turned to the Liverpool fans behind the dugout and petulantly held his finger to his lips, he announced himself as a snide genius and the ringleader of the chaotic circus that was English football in the mid noughties. His sending off only seemed to goad and incite his team further, and their victory ultimately vindicated him and bolstered his reputation as a master of psychology, gamesmanship and the footballing hive mind.

While that infamous gesture was no doubt intended to foster a sense of enmity among his opponents, with the resultant hostility fuel to the fire of his side's own competitive engine, it also revealed something about Mourinho beyond his knack for emotional manipulation. He was desperate, absolutely desperate, to win that match, and so earn his first winners' medal with Chelsea, this despite the fact that in many people's minds it was only a medal for winning the League Cup. While he may have been contesting the country's third-most prestigious domestic competition, Mourinho knew that – with his side well clear at the top of the league – an early taste of domestic silverware would further take the pressure off his squad, and allow them to go on and enjoy the rest of the season in the knowledge that they had already achieved something notable. Once again, things worked out perfectly, with the Blues finishing the 2004/05 campaign 12 points clear at the top of the Premier League.

This is the true significance of the League Cup, when it is taken seriously as a competition. It represents the first opportunity to win something in any given season, and when most teams go out of it with a whimper it represents their first definitive shortfall of the campaign. While many of his managerial competitors have been accused of wilfully neglecting the League Cup, Mourinho has always shown respect to the understated and prosaic power of the tournament. In return, it has served him well over the years, and helped him to achieve much loftier successes during his time in the English game.

READ MORE: Triumphs, Upsets, Molson Coors – Remembering The Golden Age of the Carling Cup

So, in his next outing in the League Cup final, Mourinho used the showpiece game to assert his side's dominance over a struggling rival. After a gruelling run to Wembley that included games against Blackburn, Aston Villa and Newcastle – as well as a slightly less glamorous two-legged semi-final against Wycombe Wanderers – his mature and canny Chelsea side came up against a callow Arsenal 11. Though it was still only the League Cup as far as some onlookers were concerned, this was really a clash of differing philosophies and disparate financial forces. Mourinho's Chelsea side featured the likes of Didier Drogba, Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack, assembled and maintained at huge expense alongside club stalwarts like Frank Lampard and John Terry, while Arsene Wenger decided to put out a team led by an achingly youthful Cesc Fabregas, and populated with insubstantial youngsters such as Denilson, Justin Hoyte, Armand Traore and Jeremie Aliadiere.

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If this was intended as a chance for those youngsters to prove themselves, Wenger made a miscalculation. For many of them, it was tacit proof that they were still boys against much better paid men. While there are numerous points afterwards that one could point to as the downfall of Wenger's youth project, this was the first clear indicator that Arsenal would struggle to win silverware with a team of fleet-footed teenage technicians. Though Theo Walcott put Arsenal ahead early on with his first ever goal for the club, Drogba hit back soon enough before sealing the win in the 84th minute, this after Chelsea had muscled their opponents into submission and Mourinho had worked his magic with the additions of John Obi Mikel and Arjen Robben as the game wore on.

READ MORE: The Artistic and Cultural Influence of Arsenal's Famous Back Four

The 2007 finale featured another trademark Mourinho moment, when he rushed onto the pitch deep into added time after a massive scrap broke out. After a tussle between Mikel and Kolo Toure became a flashpoint, Mourinho charged in well ahead of Wenger, ostensibly waving his arms in admonishment and playing the peacemaker in the brawling crowd. In the end, Wenger ended up separating his players from Mourinho, after his nemesis had got in amongst them and was no doubt causing even more mischief. Arsenal had two men sent off, Mikel walked too, but the upshot was that the North Londoners' concentration was broken and Mourinho had succeeded in delivering a body blow to Wenger's juvenile new wave.

Though his first League Cup win was probably more important in the context of forging his legacy at Chelsea, Mourinho would surely have savoured his second in the knowledge that he had undermined Wenger. There was little love lost between him and Rafa Benitez when he won the cup in 2005, but Mourinho seemed to truly despise Wenger's ethical pretensions when it came to money, tactics and trusting in youth. It was that second League Cup final which showed that Wenger's trust was in many ways overestimated, while it must have introduced a seed of doubt into the minds of his naive young talents. Meanwhile, Mourinho's crew of ruthless veterans had another piece of silverware to their names, and while they would miss out on the title to Manchester United they would nonetheless claim a cup double come May.

When Mourinho returned to Chelsea in the summer of 2013 – having continued to respect the domestic cups at both Inter Milan and Real Madrid in the interim, winning the Coppa Italia, the Supercoppa Italiana, the Copa del Rey and the Supercopa de España – his strategy for revitalising the side was telling. While he claimed Chelsea could never win the Premier League in his first term, being as they were "a little horse that needs milk and needs to learn how to jump," the subsequent campaign was a carbon copy of his inaugural season with the club. Having cleared up in the messy aftermath of Andre Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Matteo and former adversary Rafa Benitez, Mourinho and his side were once again ready to challenge on all fronts. The first front on which they made a successful assault was the League Cup, with Mourinho once again turning to his shiny ally in an attempt to give his team the impetus to kick on.

READ MORE: Remembering Steven Gerrard's Fateful First Career Red Card

Just as it had the first time around, Mourinho's committed approach to the cup paid off. Chelsea had a fairly easy run to the semis, beating Bolton, Shrewsbury and Derby County along the way, but were then faced with a titanic two-legged clash against Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool side. Though their talisman, Luis Suarez, had departed at the beginning of the season, Liverpool were still a tough proposition and desperate for revenge against Chelsea, with the Blues having scuppered their title challenge at Anfield the season before. Regardless of some risky antics from Chelsea's imperious new striker Diego Costa, Chelsea edged the tie with an aggregate victory of two goals to one.

It was in the aftermath of those two games that The Independent hailed the return of "nasty Chelsea", a moniker which no doubt brought Mourinho great satisfaction. In the 2015 final, his men came up against a resurgent Tottenham with a team of bright young talents, but much like they had against Arsenal eight years previous Chelsea squeezed the life out of their opponents with aplomb. Mourinho lifted the League Cup once again, and Chelsea duly went on to win the league. He had used the competition to galvanise his team, and accordingly restored their reputation as one of the toughest and most resilient sides in the land.

When Mourinho leads Manchester United out against Southampton at Wembley this weekend, he will be at the head of a team that needs a similar boost to its reputation. While he seems to have got over his early teething problems at Old Trafford, the side is still a far cry from that which – even in its less vintage years – racked up so many trophies under the guidance of Alex Ferguson. Now, as Mourinho well knows, they have been presented with the opportunity to boost their confidence, claim some silverware and capitalise on their recent momentum. Whether or not he adds another League Cup to his collection on Sunday, Mourinho can be guaranteed to give it everything, aware as he is of just how valuable England's least acclaimed tournament can be.

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