Saturday, April 29, 2006

A victory for pragmatism

For two teams known for their attacking flair, Arsenal and Barcelona have marched into a May final on the back of a more measured approach

A homecoming of sorts at the Stade de France in Paris on May 18 (Australian time) when Arsenal and Barcelona meet in a sumptuous Champions League final, and while the combatants are recognised globally as two of the most flowing football practitioners, paradoxically their success in Europe this season has been built on a more pragmatic approach.

For Arsene Wenger and his skipper Thierry Henry, Paris will represent the pinnacle of an eight year English odyssey, an opportunity to return home and show off how they have revolutionised the Gunners, a once dour London outfit know for their 1-0 victories, now one of the most sophisticated football clubs in the world.

For Barcelona’s sublimely gifted twice world footballer of the year Ronaldinho, Paris represents an opportunity to return to the place it started for him in 2001 when he chose French Ligue 1 outfit Paris St Germain to launch himself onto the world stage.

The appetite wets at the prospect of seeing these two attacking forces grace the wonderful occasion that is the Champions League final, Arsenal with the lightning quick feet of Henry and his supporting cast from midfield, Barcelona with all the artistry of Ronaldinho and Deco and the directness of Samuel Eto’o and Ludovic Giuly, another returning Frenchman.

Yet for all the obvious attacking weapons that both sides possess, it has been their work off the ball, both in the dugout and on the pitch, that has categorised their respective runs to the final.

The Gunners, after almost a decade of trying, have finally enjoyed the taste of European success in the season they probably least expected. With Patrick Viera long gone, form at home fluctuating, and the backline decimated by three long term injuries to veterans Lauren, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole, Arsenal have had little choice but to re-adjust, and what a splendid job the maestro Wenger has done at that.

Undefeated in all 12 European games this season, they’ve now made it 10 clean sheets on the trot, a Champions League record, not conceding a goal since Ajax’s Markus Rosenberg put one past Manuel Almunia way back on Matchday 2, seven months ago.

Indeed, Wednesday morning’s (Australian time) hero, German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, who saved a last minute penalty from a nervous looking Juan Ramon Riquelme, has been their lucky charm, not conceding a goal since coming into the team on Matchday 3.

While Lehmann, one of Arsenal’s most consistent performers in the premiership this season, has been miserly in Europe, he’s been helped in no small part by the inexperienced defensive trio of Emmanuel Eboue, Philippe Senderos and Mathieu Flamini.

Indeed, the trio, who have formed a formidable back four along with Kolo Toure since the turn of the year, are a credit to the masterful management abilities of Wenger, who, in the space of one season, has been able to re-build a team that looked decimated when Viera left, blending in just the right amount of youth to complement some of his ageing stars.

His work to turn Toure, brought to the club as an attacking right midfielder a few years ago, into one of the best central defenders around, has been the work of a genius. Ditto his use of Flamini, a central midfielder, as a stop gap left back.

Further kudos comes from his change in formation from the 4-4-2 we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in the Premier League and in previous Champions League campaigns to a 4-5-1, with Henry on his own up front, getting support from the likes of Alexander Hleb, Cesc Fabregas, Freddie Ljungberg, Jose Antonio Reyes and Robert Pires breaking forward from midfield at pace, not to mention the brilliant overlapping of Eboue from right back, such a feature of the second round win over Real Madrid, when he toyed with Brazilian Robinho.

It was this tie, particular the first up win at the Bernabeu that has set up the Gunners European run. By flooding his midfield, Wenger has been able to fix the problem that seemed most obvious earlier in the season – how to replace Viera? – by providing enough shield for the defence and the requisite numbers to spring forward in support of Henry.

Whereas in previous seasons Arsenal have attacked as gospel, this season the motto has been defend first, get men behind the ball, and then launch forward rapidly, to which the great Henry has been key.

While tactically there’s been an adjustment, the thing that hasn’t changed about Wenger’s team has been the emphasis on technique and pace. Each of his players is hand-picked for his good ability on the ball and then given the confidence to express it. Witness the revelation that Alexander Hleb, driving from central and wide midfield, has been since Christmas. Prior to that he looked terribly over-priced, but Wenger’s magic touch has been able to bring out the best in him.

A lesser manager may have given up, but Wenger appears to have instilled in Hleb the necessary confidence to do the job.

His identification and subsequent development of Spaniard Cesc Fabregas has been another masterstroke, best highlighted by two outstanding quarter finals against his predecessor Viera, where his ability both as a distributor and driving midfielder were evident.

Just how good his new look defence has been was best highlighted on Wednesday morning. With Senderos out and Flamini limping off early, the balance at the back was altered by Campbell and Gael Clichy coming in. Suddenly, a defence that has seemed so calm and assured for the past five matches looked rushed and more hesitant, best highlighted when Clichy gave away the late penalty and Campbell failed to deal with a couple of excellent crosses from Villarreal right back Javi Venta.

If Senderos is available for the final, don’t be surprised to see him chosen ahead of Campbell, ditto Flamini on the left.

Regardless of the team make-up in Paris, Arsenal feel it is their destiny to win a first European crown, but their opposition also feel they have an equal right to a trophy they have remarkably only won once, not good enough for a club of its stature.

Indeed, it has now been 12 years since they last graced the final, a poor return for a club that should be regularly competing with the likes of AC Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid.

In the past few years, Barcelona have only had themselves to blame for their repeated failures in Europe, sticking to their all out attacking philosophies as other teams used more balanced approaches to dominate the continent. Even Real, when they won the title in 2001/2002, had a more pragmatic approach, ensuring their were enough defensive minded players – the likes of Fernanado Hierro, Ivan Helguerra and Claude Makelele - to allow their attackers to flourish.

The same goes with Liverpool last year and Porto the year before. The teams that do well in Europe have often been the ones that strike the right balance between defending and attacking, ensuring they aren’t exposed defensively when they press forward.

In previous years Barcelona haven’t placed enough importance on their work without the ball, believing they will always outscore the opposition. If they get three, we’ll get four, that’s been the principle.

Last season it was so blatantly exposed by Chelsea, who absorbed whatever Barcelona threw at them in the second round, countering with ruthless efficiency to expose the gaps left by a team committing too many men forward.

Watching right back Juliano Belletti last season you could almost be convinced he was a winger, such was his propensity to press forward. Watching him on Thursday morning (our time) you had to wait 29 minutes to see him venture into the Milan final third.

Herein lies the change in philosophy by Barcelona this season, which was so evident in the second round against Chelsea. With talents like Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Deco, Lionel Messi, Henrik Larsson and Giuly likely to create opportunities against any opposition, Frank Rijkaard adopted a more conservative rearguard, with Presas Oleguer at right back, Rafael Marquez and Carles Puyol central and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst on the left. They were screened by the equally defensive minded Brazilians Edmilson and Thiago Motta in central midfield, ensuring Barcelona could compete not only in the attacking third, but in the middle and back thirds.

It worked a treat, with Deco and Motta getting in the face of Makelele and Frank Lampard, stopping the supply to Chelsea’s wide men. It was redemption for Rijkaard over Jose Mourinho after being out-thought last season.

Despite a plethora of injuries in the subsequent ties against Benfica and Milan, it is a formula that Rijkaard has stuck to; as long as we can keep the opposition out at our end, we have enough fire-power to do the job at the other.

Undoubtedly it has been the tinkering with his personnel at the back that has made all the difference. These days Marquez is thought of as a central defender, Edmilson as a defensive midfielder and Oleguer as a right back. These subtle changes have given Rijkaard control at the back, allowing his attackers to flourish.

For a team known the world over for its attacking might, the statistics are damning. Only two goals conceded in its six knock-out games, both against Chelsea, and four clean sheets on the trot.

With a platform like that, it’s almost tempting to dub them Barca the Boring. Not on your life and certainly not with Ronaldinho on a mission to add the ‘trophy with big ears’ to his growing collection.

While Barca’s attack hasn’t been as ruthless since the sublimely gifted Messi was injured in the second leg against Chelsea, it has been doing enough, and will undoubtedly give Arsenal’s new back four their biggest test to date.

Barcelona will feel that if Marquez and Puyol can control Henry, and Edmilson can stop Arsenal’s midfielders driving forward, they have enough punch up front to finally breach the Gunners rearguard.

But it’s won’t be all out attack from Rijkaard’s men, they will always ensure they have the numbers to halt any rapid Arsenal counter-thrust. Indeed, times have changed for two of the attacking underachievers of the world game.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Socceroos World Cup squad; Covering the bases

An ageing defence, right midfield and Lazaridis the biggest headaches for Hiddink

LESS than a month out from the May 15 deadline for the managers of the 32 competing countries to submit their final 23 man squads for the World Cup and while there is little public discourse emanating from the Socceroos brains-trust of Guus Hiddink, Graham Arnold and Johan Neeskens about the make-up of their squad, there is no doubt the trio will be regularly cross-referencing the merits of the various candidates as they seek the right balance.

While little has been discussed openly, for obvious reasons, we do know that Hiddink held a training camp in early March for the core of his squad, those players who featured in the Uruguay qualifiers in November, where they are reported to have fine-tuned their logistical and tactical blueprints, ensuring everyone is on the same page.

We also know from comments by Arnold in the past fortnight that Hiddink favours taking three youngsters along for the ride. Regardless of whether they see much action, the move is clever succession planning, ensuring there is natural progression to the next squad that attempts to qualify.

We also know that you have to take three goalkeepers, but the mystery comes from the make-up of the 20 outfield players.

One of the intriguing aspects will be the structure of Hiddink’s squad, the balance between defenders, midfielders and forwards. Interestingly, in 2002 with South Korea, his official list had four defenders, four forwards and 12 midfielders. While there is little doubt Hiddink does like to stack his teams with midfielders, as we saw against Uruguay, the reality is that a number of the South Korean ‘midfielders’ lined up as either defenders or attackers.

It is all part of the Hiddink way, about keeping the opposition guessing, his own players on their toes, and giving himself the flexibility to move players around like pawns in a big game of chess.

So the balance of the Socceroos squad is likely to remain a mystery until it’s disclosed, and even then it should contain enough intrigue and bluff to spark plenty of debate.

But for now, the main area of debate among the trio is likely to be the defensive area of the pitch and how they re-invigorate an ageing backline, at the same time ensuring they reward those players who have served the green and gold so admirably over the years but haven't necessarily been playing for their clubs of late, the likes of Tony Vidmar, Tony Popovic, Craig Moore and Stan Lazaridis.

Just what Hiddink does with his defence will be the most fascinating aspect of his World Cup squad, particularly after it was so blatantly exposed less than 12 months ago at the Confederations Cup in Germany, where the Socceroos conceded 10 goals in its three games to finish bottom of their group.

In the two Uruguay games he went for the experience of Vidmar, Lucas Neill and Popovic. All where magnificent over the two legs, particularly Neill who was a revelation in the central role, organising and distributing with poise and dominating the likes of Richard Morales with his physical attributes.

There was speculation in the lead up to those crunch qualifiers that Hiddink would opt for a injection of youth to his backline, introducing Michael Thwaites, who had done so splendidly on debut against Jamaica a couple of months earlier, reasoning that he would add some extra pace to a backline that was exposed as pedestrian at the Confederations Cup by the likes of Lucas Podolski, Luciano Figueroa and Francileudo dos Santos.

In the end, with so much at stake and with former skipper Craig Moore out with a long term hamstring injury, Hiddink opted for the experienced duo of Vidmar and Popovic in the twin marking roles either side of Neill. Both had been showing signs of slowing down in the past couple of seasons, but here they repaid Hiddink’s faith with career highlight displays.

Vidmar, at 35, and in his fourth qualifying campaign, turned back to clock 12 years to his first campaign, against the might of Maradona’s Argentina at the then Sydney Football Stadium, when as a raw right back he set up Australia’s only goal for brother Aurelio.

While Popovic was withdrawn by Hiddink about 30 minutes into the second leg, shortly after he'd stopped Alvaro Recoba in his tracks with an arm to the head that went unnoticed by the officials, he’d done his job. No doubt Hiddink had reasoned that Popovic, given his lack of match time at club Crystal Palace and the fact he’d played 90 minutes in Montevideo only a few days earlier, had done enough and it was time to introduce more pace to the backline by shifting Scott Chipperfield to left stopper and introducing Harry Kewell to the left side of attack.

Whether Hiddink’s motivation was to introduce more pace to the backline or provide more of an outlet in the attacking third, his move did both. It was the masterstroke of the tie, instantly giving Australia the control both in attack and defence that it had lacked in the opening half hour.

What it proved defensively is that the Socceroos looked more comfortable with Chipperfield’s extra pace at the back. No doubt Hiddink will have taken note of this as he casts an eye towards the type of opponent we are likely to face in Germany and the type of personnel required to do the job.

In the last week or so he has stated that he will adopt a horses for courses approach to his team selections in Germany, hinting he will want as much flexibility in his squad as possible, which will allow him to tailor his selection for each of his opponents.

So, against the fleet-footed attackers from Japan and Brazil he will be looking for mobile options, while against the likes of Dado Prso and Ivan Klasnic from Croatia he will need a physical presence, particularly at the back.

One defender who provides the agility and strength that Hiddink appears to favour is Central Coast Mariners defender Michael Beauchamp, who did his chances of selection no harm with an accomplished display on debut in Bahrain in the Asian Cup qualifier in February, backed up by an outstanding A-League season and grand final.

Another whose agility was a feature of his debut was Thwaites, although his chances now appear slim after being frozen out of the first 11 at his Romanian club National Bucharest for the past six months, which contributed to a poor first half against Bahrain. Another whose hopes may have faded is big FC Thun defender Lubjo Milicevic, seemingly on the outer since the Confederations Cup, despite featuring in the Champions League this season.

Ditto Simon Colosimo, once a mainstay due to his versatility.

There are other defenders still in the mix, the likes of Jon McKain, Jade North and Alvin Ceccoli, all of who played full games alongside Beauchamp against Bahrain without making enough of an impression. Despite a stellar A-League season, the chances of Adelaide’s Michael Valkanis appear slim after not getting off the bench in that game, while his former South Melbourne teammate Patrick Kisnorbo, a mobile option now at Leicester City, has also had little opportunity to impress Hiddink.

With all the uncertainty at the back, a major boost for the manager has been the re-emergence of Moore to the Newcastle United first 11 over the past month. After a scratchy first game, it is no coincidence that Newcastle’s fortunes have improved since Moore made his long awaited return. Timing is everything, and if he can stay on the park for the next month or so, then crucially Hiddink will have a fresh Moore to lead the rearguard in Germany.

Just how the manager balances the tactical need to re-invigorate his defence with the human need of honouring some of the stalwarts of the Australian game will be fascinating to observe.

There is little doubt that Hiddink will find room in his squad for both Vidmar and Popovic, who should deservedly go to the World Cup along with Moore, Neill and Beauchamp, the outstanding of the younger candidates. That makes it five out and out defenders, with Chipperfield offering the flexibility and mobility to play at left stopper, a job he did superbly in Sydney. Whether Vidmar or Popovic see much game time though could depend on the fitness of Moore.

Given the constant fitness doubts surrounding our rearguard and the option Hiddink has of playing Chipperfield in midfield, there is a strong argument for a sixth defender, with perhaps Jon McKain the next in line, given he can also provide back up in the holding role in midfield and has been around the national team the past few years.

MOBILITY, adaptability and tactical awareness have been the buzz terms under the Hiddink era, and nowhere are they more in evidence in than Hiddink’s midfield, where the likes of Vince Grella, Marco Bresciano, Jason Culina, Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell have flourished.

All are now experienced campaigners playing regularly and starring for their club sides in Europe and there is little doubt that, should they get through their respective seasons and the upcoming friendlies against Greece, Holland and Liechtenstein, all will be in Ohringen – Socceroo headquarters - come early June.

One area of concern for the management team would no doubt be at right midfield, where the constant sight of Brett Emerton on the Blackburn bench would be worrying, perhaps even more so given that his natural replacement, Ahmad Elrich, has barely seen any first team action at Fulham and has recently been loaned out to Norway.

While there is no suggestion that Emerton’s position is the squad is anything but assured, especially given he was part of the most recent camp, Elrich’s appears to be less secure. A player who thrived towards the end of Frank Farina’s reign and was beginning to put pressure on Emerton has become a peripheral figure under Hiddink, mainly due to a lack of action over the past 18 months.

The decision of who will provide cover for Emerton might be one that isn’t finalised till the last hour, especially with Elrich starting in Lyn’s opening two encounters, scoring the winner in last week’s 2-1 win over Valerenga.

Playing on the manager’s mind will be the flexibility offered by the likes of Mile Sterjovski and Brett Holman, either of whom can play wide on the right or up front through the middle. Holman in particular has had an outstanding season on loan to Dutch second division side Excelsior, helping them to the championship with 14 goals and attracting the attention of a number of Eredivisie clubs.

He also grasped his opportunity Bahrain, coming off the bench at half time and changing the complexion of the game with his hard running on and off the ball. Perhaps the fact he’s based under Hiddink’s eye in Holland might just give Holman the inside running.

Sterjovski has been given many opportunities in the past without ever really grasping one.

Perhaps this World Cup has come too soon for Sydney FC’s David Carney, but if he continues to develop at the rate he did this season, his claims will be hard to ignore down the track.

As far as central midfield cover is concerned, a wonderful man of the match display against Bahrain gives Josip Skoko a definite squad position. Despite his limited game time at Wigan this season and in the Uruguay qualifiers, Skoko showed his experience by pulling the strings in the second half, providing a link between midfield and attack as well as a constant goal threat.

His delivery from the set piece is another attribute in his favour.

Another versatile midfielder who has featured in a number of Hiddink squads is Bristol City’s Luke Wilkshire, a disciplined player who has even played one game for Hiddink at right back. Yet, if Hiddink does take McKain as defensive back-up, then Wilkshire’s chances may be slim.

Most interesting are the aspirations of another green and gold legend in Stan Lazaridis, arguably the most consistent Socceroo of the past decade. For the first time in his Birmingham career he has been a peripheral figure this season, starting only 11 games, while he failed to see any action against Uruguay. With the left sided positions seemingly bedded down by Chipperfield and Kewell, perhaps Lazaridis’ best hope of making the trip is if Chipperfield is seen by Hiddink as an out and out stopper, still a possibility.

Despite his own spot being under scrutiny, it’s not surprising to learn that Lazaridis recently extended the virtues of his Birmingham teammate Neil Kilkenny to the FFA. It’s this selfless attitude that his endeared him to Socceroos fans and managers over the years and it would be a heart-breaker if Lazaridis was left out.

These are the questions undoubtedly weighing on Hiddink’s mind. If he does take an extra defender in McKain, and given that Grella, Bresciano, Chipperfield, Kewell, Cahill, Culina, Emerton and Skoko pick themselves, there appears only one spot for either Lazaridis, Elrich or Wilkshire.

That’s based on the principle that he will want five strikers. Given that Kewell can also play up front, Hiddink may only choose four, letting in another of the midfielders.

The two strikers that are automatic are skipper Mark Viduka and penalty shootout hero John Aloisi. Archie Thompson’s situation is more puzzling. Loaned out to Hiddink’s PSV, seemingly to get game time ahead of the Cup, he saw little action as PSV marched away with the title.

But Hiddink has shown he likes him, as much for the ‘unknown’ factor, the option of using him right, left or central. In Montevideo, Thompson started on the left of a three man attack, while against Bahrain he did his damage through the middle and then down the right.

Another who can provide that surprise element is Holman, driving from deep off the main striker or from out wide.

So with two big strikers who play through the middle and two small forwards who can play central or wide, just what to do with the final spot? Sterjovski is one option, but the brains-trust might see this as an opportunity for a bolter, possibly a big man like Dynamo Dresden’s Joshua Kennedy or Sydney FC’s Sasho Petrovski, or a more nimble option like Scott McDonald or Alex Brosque.

Which leaves the job of choosing the third choice goalkeeper. With Mark Schwarzer and Zeljko Kalac fighting it out for the number one jersey, does Hiddink stick with the status quo, Ante Covic, does he go for another experienced option like Clint Bolton or Michael Petkovic, or does he look to the future by giving a youngster like Middlesborough’s Brad Jones or the Mariners Danny Vukovic a taste of the big time?

As we know he has already stated a willingness to take three youngsters, and the third goalkeeper, unlikely to see much action, might be an opportunity for one of the spots.

Whatever transpires, there will be some hard luck stories, there will be the odd surprise, but the dictating factor for Hiddink and Co. will be to ensure they have all their bases covered.


Goalkeepers; Mark Schwarzer, Zeljko Kalac, one from Ante Covic/Clint Bolton/Brad Jones
Defenders; Lucas Neill, Tony Vidmar, Craig Moore, Tony Popovic, Michael Beauchamp, Jon McKain.
Midfielders; Scott Chipperfield, Vince Grella, Marco Bresciano, Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill, Jason Culina, Brett Emerton, Josip Skoko, one from Ahmad Elrich/Stan Lazaridis/Luke Wilkshire.
Strikers; Mark Viduka, John Aloisi, Archie Thompson, Brett Holman, one from Alex Brosque/Joshua Kennedy/Sasho Petrovski.

You’ve read the arguments, you know the headaches facing Hiddink, Arnold and Neeskens, now it’s your turn. Who’s in and out of your 23? Post a comment.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Mourinho's men wipe away recent blues

With Manchester United and the world at large breathing heavily down their necks, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea showed they are made of the right stuff in yesterday’s London derby at home to West Ham, rescuing what looked a shaky position early on to win comfortably and loosen the noose around their throats.

A goal and a man down only 15 minutes in and with Manchester United almost within touching distance, this was as stiff a test as Chelsea have faced in the premier league this season and they passed with flying colours, finishing empathic 4-1 victors and re-confirming their favouritism for the title.

Make no mistake, a team of pretenders would have crumbled if faced by the same predicament as Mourinho’s men, but this team proved they are the real deal, full of character.

With Manchester United only seven points adrift in the race for the title after the worse run in Mourinho’s two years at the helm and with Alex Ferguson’s men hosting Arsenal only a few hours later, the Blues entered this match knowing they couldn’t afford any more slip-ups.

While publicly the manager made light of the situation, hinting he was more concerned about the potential of catching bird-flu, privately he would have recognised that another blemish would have given further impetus to the hard chasing United, unbeaten in the premiership since the first day of February.

As much could be told about the urgency of the situation by Mourinho’s team selection, moving dramatically away from the wide formula that has proved so successful over the past two seasons but has looked stale in the past month or so as teams have worked out that if you stop Frank Lampard and Claude Makelele, you stop the supply to the wide men.

Out went the likes of Joe Cole, Damien Duff and Arjen Robben as Mourinho ditched his 4-3-3 and reverted to the traditional English 4-4-2 formula, partnering strikers Didier Drogba and Hernan Crespo in the starting 11 for the first time.

The midfield trio of Lampard, Nuno Maniche and Michael Essien, all nominally central players, were placed in a tight line behind the strikers and screened by Makelele. It was a narrow template, but clearly designed to shake up his own men and throw a spanner into the works of the opposition, who’s manager Alan Pardew could not have expected such a move.

From a tactical perspective, Mourinho would have reasoned that he needed to get more support and supply to his front men, and this system would allow each of the midfield trio of Lampard, Maniche and Essien, all willing runners, to spring forward and support the front two.

In the first few moments it seemed that Chelsea were the team struggling with the change in formation. A goal down after James Collins profited from some lax marking at a corner, they were soon reduced to 10 men when Maniche dived in recklessly on Lionel Scaloni.

In truth, these incidents seemed to enliven the hosts who were soon spraying passes, hitting the crossbar and showing an appetite that has been lacking since being bundled out of Europe by Barcelona. Drogba, in particular, seemed keen to silence his recent detractors and turned on wonderful display, scoring the first from a sublime Lampard first time ball, before laying on the second for Crespo.

Anyone who switched on from the 20 minute mark would barely have recognised Chelsea were a man down. With Drogba dropping deeper to help the midfield and the two fullbacks, Asier Del Horno on the left and Geremi on the right pressing forward to lend a hand, Chelsea were in total control and barely looked threatened.

As hungry as the champions were to maintain status quo in the premiership race, West Ham’s display can only be described as pedestrian, both in desire on the pitch and reaction in the dugout.

When Chelsea were reduced to 10 men, the obvious move was for Pardew to push Marlon Harewood up front, alongside Dean Ashton, but by maintaining the 4-5-1, all he did was invite Chelsea forward, an offer they gleefully accepted.

By the time the move came after the break, Chelsea had regained the confident and destructive swagger that had been their trademark under Mourinho, with the two centre backs John Terry and William Gallas soon helping themselves to goals.

While Ferguson’s men kept up the pressure a short time later with their ninth straight premiership win, Chelsea will know that the destiny of the title remains with them.

The big test will likely come at the end of the month, when they host Rooney, Ronaldo, Ruud and Co., a game that could seal Mourinho’s fourth title in as many seasons, the first two of which came at Porto.

For now he can rest content in the knowledge that, on this showing, his men are clearly up for the challenge of retaining their title.