The Northern Irishman has always been at pains to stress he is no protege of the Special One, and stands on the brink of a triumph that would put his old mentor to shame
By Liam Twomey
Few things in football surprise Jose Mourinho. A man obsessed by preparation and methodology, he has built a phenomenally successful 12-year managerial career on an almost unerring ability to cater for every possible scenario.
But whether he admits it publicly or not as he weighs up whether to make good on his threat to field a weakened Chelsea team at Anfield on Sunday, there is no way the Special One saw any of this coming.
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It would constitute the most remarkable triumph of the Premier League era, and not least for the fact that Brendan Rodgers, the man in line to take the acclaim, was still struggling to prove himself as a manager in the second tier of English football less than four years ago.
In the summer of 2010, as Swansea City owner Huw Jenkins was opting to give Rodgers a second chance to kick-start his managerial career, Mourinho was getting his feet under the table at Real Madrid as a two-time Champions League winner and the most successful manager of his generation.
But the two men enjoyed a shared history and it was always likely their paths would cross again. Mourinho gave Rodgers his first break by making him head youth coach at Chelsea in 2004, before recommending the Northern Irishman for the managerial post he took up at Watford in November 2008.
During his first spell at Stamford Bridge the Portuguese offered the man 10 years his junior the benefit of his greater experience at elite level, as well as a chance to work beyond his official remit with a star-studded senior squad.
Rodgers, of course, is not the only coach to use time spent under Mourinho as a springboard to management. Andre Villas-Boas, Steve Clarke and Aitor Karanka have all taken a similar path with varying degrees of success.
But while he gives Mourinho due credit for playing a key role in his rise, Rodgers has always been at pains to stress he is no protégé. "He's a great man... but I take from myself," he told French journalist Philippe Auclair at the end of his final season in south Wales. "You cannot be anyone else. I've learned from many good people. When you're clever, you learn from everyone. My philosophy was already formed before I even went to Chelsea."
It is an assertion Mourinho confirmed when congratulating Rodgers on his appointment as Liverpool boss in the summer of 2012. "When he joined us at Chelsea he was a young coach with lots of desire to learn," the Portuguese told reporters. "But he was also a coach with ideas, who was ready not just to listen but also to communicate and share."
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Rodgers, meanwhile, made his name at Swansea by drawing inspiration from Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, seeking defensive security and territorial domination through relentless possession, even against teams of superior players.
But a key part of the narrative of the Northern Irishman's miraculous second season at Anfield has been his willingness to adapt his vision. Liverpool sit an underwhelming ninth in the Premier League average possession table but have scored nine goals on the counter-attack, more than double the next best tally in the division. They have also scored 23 goals from set-pieces, four more than anyone else.
Rodgers still encourages his players to be proactive and trust themselves on the ball, but his team's surprise title challenge has been built primarily on blistering attacking pace and movement but also dead-ball prowess – two pillars of Mourinho's own philosophy.
The stars have also aligned for Liverpool. Both Chelsea and Manchester City have lost key men during the run-in, Manchester United have mounted the most pathetic title defence of recent years and Arsenal have once again succumbed to long-standing problems. The Merseysiders will also only play 43 matches this season – six less than any other Premier League-winning team – and the freshness of the likes of Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling and Coutinho has been clear to see in decisive moments of the run-in.
But if Liverpool do cross the finish line first there will be no question over merit, and their success will reflect badly on more lavishly resourced rivals.
Perhaps this is the reason why Mourinho has made few attempts to derail Rodgers' title challenge with his words.
Perhaps it is simply because, unlike Pep Guardiola, Manuel Pellegrini and Rafa Benitez, he considers him a friend. But rivalry and friendship rarely prove easy bedfellows, and on Sunday they compete as equals.
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