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The Scolari Connection


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The Scolari Connection

Will Big Phil be smiling on Sunday afternoon?

Luiz Felipe Scolari once famously said the difference between a hero and a coward is one step sideways, which seems a particularly astute observation when used as a discussion point ahead of Sunday's gargantuan clash between Chelsea and Manchester United.

It would have been even more poignant had it really been Scolari and not Gene Hackman that arrived at such a conclusion, but given they are one and the same person let not such trivialities cloud our discourse.

Stick a porkpie hat on Big Phil and he's Jimmy 'Popeye' Doyle of French Connection infamy, but then not even a seasoned narcotics cop with a brutal line in interrogation could convince Florent Malouda to break into a trot. I digress... but Gene does make a sound point and it's one Scolari has embraced in shooing the spectre of Jose Mourinho to the corridors marked 'Old News' in the mind space of the average Chelsea fan. It's here where the Special One regularly shoots the breeze with Ruud Gullit, Claudio Ranieri and Avram Grant, while John Hollins sweeps the floor in the background and struggles to work the frappuccino maker.

Given the current campaign is still very much in its infancy and as struggling managers are always keen to remind us, trophies are not handed out in September (nope, but P45s are), it would be reactionary to credit Scolari with transforming Chelsea from being ruthlessly efficient - a euphemism for disciples of dour - to practitioners of 'Sexy Football'. After all, unlike Ruud, he hasn't got Erland Johnson to call on.

But there is something strangely appealing about Chelsea this season. Maybe it's the guilty pleasure syndrome; the crush you had on your friend's mum, the time you tapped your foot to James Blunt rather than mutter appropriate rhyming slang, the time you found yourself laughing at Vernon Kay rather than nailing your head to the radio/television upon hearing his dormant tones. Of course it's wrong, if not a little dirty, but there's something about Scolari that casts colour over a club that lost the neutral when it became less about Osgood, Hudson, Zola, flair(s) and the Kings Road and more about Kenyon, Abramovich, Mourinho, money and moaning.

And he's done all this by reducing the fear factor and allowing his players to take that extra step from coward to hero, to escape from what William Blake called 'mindforged manacles' and Mourinho 'tactics'. That's not to say he's thrown the rule book out of the window to play Ossie Ardiles mental football but if nothing else he's convinced Ashley Cole a football pitch consists of two halves and that you don't automatically have to give an honest assessment of your wife's new album if you cross over from one into the other.

The use of a narrow middle three and buccaneering full-backs overlapping on either side has been a style of play long-since favoured by Brazilian coaches and in Cole and Jose Bosingwa, Scolari has at his disposal a pair that negate the threat of opposition wingers by pushing them further and further back. Cristiano Ronaldo is likely to start on the bench on Sunday but if Sir Alex Ferguson opts for experience and Ryan Giggs at Stamford Bridge then the Welshman will have to be mindful of Bosingwa, whose enthusiasm to attack has had an infectious affect on Cole.

Scolari's acquisition of Deco has proven to be nothing less than a masterstroke as the man who was at the hub of a gifted Portugal side during their time together on the international arena adds subtlety and guile to Michael Ballack's balletic athleticism and Frank Lampard's relentless dynamism, while at the same time showing a pugnacious spirit that makes of mockery of those that suggested he lacked the necessary brawn to survive in the Premier League. Like Gene says, Deco is never afraid to make the pass that divides heroes from cowards. He's even put a smile on the face of Nicolas Anelka, a feat which has seen Gordon Brown pitch up in West London begging for a similar miracle.

In midweek, Chelsea were at their bullying best in brushing aside a Bordeaux side that had less backbone than a snake but nonetheless, Scolari's sniping at his team's recklessness in possession following a 4-0 win paints an ominous picture for those fast arriving at the conclusion that the Brazilian's smile is not painted or a facade, but rather an expression of the confidence he has in himself, his ideas and most importantly, his players.

Upon his appointment there had been reservations about Scolari's abrasive manner and loathing of journalists, he once hit an unsuspecting hack, but to date he has been charm personified, more avuncular than draconian. He may look like one of Tony Soprano's bouncers in his tracksuit next to close friend Fabio Capello's mafioso garb but only managers that lack the respect of their players need to employ bully-boy tactics. The manner in which he had the mardy man-child John Obi Mikel in stitches at a recent press conference spoke volumes for his dressing room standing. To cast him as a bar-room brawler is to offer a dated perspective on a man who has admittedly courted controversy in the past (he'll probably never make the cover of Attitude) during a career that spanned 18 jobs in 21 years before his appointment as Brazil boss.

Ferguson has conceded in his latter years he's mellowed and that his famous hairdryer rants are the exception rather than the rule, although I suspect it's only because he can't get the bloody thing off Ronaldo, and it's easy to draw parallels with Scolari. When the mood takes them both are capable of cutting humour and while there has been the odd bout of verbal sparring between the two, the Scot has in the past conceded admiration for his South American counterpart. The verbose battles this summer over Scolari's alleged bending of Ronaldo's ear to join Real Madrid and Ferguson's 'Dad's Army' retort with regards the age of Chelsea's squad lacked the needle of a heavyweight bout of bygone years, involving messrs Mourinho and Wenger. They probably won't tickle each other on the Stamford Bridge touchline but histrionics should be kept to a minimum just so long as no-one mentions John Terry's suspens...

Wenger once said of Scolari: "You meet him and you think: 'Why is Gene Hackman talking to me about football?'"

Come Sunday afternoon and Sir Alex Ferguson might just have an answer for the professor.

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