It’s a knockout match. Porto have to go for the win, because Dynamo Kiev will surely defeat Maccabi Tel Aviv, even if Uefa has banned their spectators for racism. Chelsea are on a tightrope — one slip could put them out.
Their beleaguered manager faces the club where he made his name, in a match that could be make or break. Should he survive, his following match is against league leaders Leicester City, managed by his predecessor in 2004, Claudio Ranieri, so often the nearly man and the target of Mourinho’s jibes in Italy and England.
In goal for Porto is Iker Casillas, statistically the best-ever goalkeeper in the Champions League with three wins and most clean sheets in the history of the competition. He says his falling-out with Mourinho in Madrid is in the past, but his demotion still rankles and this is an obvious chance to get one back on his former boss.
Just to complete the scenario, the official in charge of the showdown is Cuneyt Cakir. The Turkish referee helped save Mourinho’s bacon in March 2013 at Old Trafford when Nani was dismissed for a 50-50 challenge and Real Madrid went through at Manchester United’s expense.
A year earlier, Cakir was the referee in Barcelona when John Terry was sent off and Chelsea survived their Alamo at Camp Nou. And he was also in charge on the night when the Blues crashed out to Juventus in Turin, and Roberto Di Matteo was sacked at 4am.
Enough of omens, this game is crucial for both clubs. Chelsea need to salvage something after a disastrous run; reaching the knockout stage would provide much-needed motivation. They need the revenue after last year’s loss. They need Champions League football if they want to reinforce their squad in January and qualifying next season is now in serious doubt.
Porto normally are assured of Champions League qualification, but the Portuguese league is a three-way contest this season. They are ahead of Benfica, but Lisbon’s second club Sporting are top.
In the past, Porto have been able to call on investment funds to finance new transfers. That avenue is now closed — at least formally. The club’s continued need for cash is illustrated by the case of Gianelli Imbula, purchased for around €20m in the summer from Marseille.
Apparently this signing was paid for by the club, but there is more than a suspicion that there was help from outsiders in a deal brokered by Nelio Lucas, the main man behind Doyen Sports Investments.
“Porto will get back more than €20m. Everyone is happy,” Lucas said in October. “Unfortunately, I have no money involved.” Imbula starred in Porto’s 2-1 win against Chelsea that seemed to put them in pole position, dominating the midfield and providing space for Yacine Brahimi to run at Branislav Ivanovic and make hay.
He looked like excellent value in that game – in fact just the sort of midfielder Chelsea have been crying out for this season – only to have a nightmare in Porto’s shock defeat against Kiev.
The result looks a freak in the context of Porto’s otherwise unbeaten run this season, with only three defeats in their last 14 European matches.
They were destroyed by Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals last April, when the Germans had six shots on target and won 6-1. But Porto’s 3-1 win in the first leg showed what they can do, and they might have scored three or four against Chelsea. Cristian Tello, on loan from Barcelona, is a threat, along with Brahimi. But with all that is at stake, this could be a game where both sides have an eye on counterattack.