Tuesday, 4 November 2008
He wrinkled his nose at one invitation to sing his own praises – after Luciano Spaletti, Roma's coach, said Chelsea were currently the "best side in the world" – by declaring there were maybe "10 or even 50" top sides but Luiz Felipe Scolari decided, with a smile, to accept a second opportunity.
Did he, he was asked, like the team hotel that Chelsea were using ahead of tonight's Champions League tie and would he like to book it – now – for the final next May which is also to be played in the cavernous bowl that is the Stadio Olimpico? "If the hotel accepts, we'll book it for me," Scolari said. "If they accept, we'll do that."
The Cavalieri Hotel – a cool £776 a night for a standard room – is indeed one of the most beautiful in this most beautiful of cities and even though Scolari was in playful mood and even though, in truth, it is Uefa, the European governing body, which selects the team hotels for its showpiece game, there is a hard-edged belief to the comment by the Brazilian – of Italian descent, of course, with his father Benjamin hailing from Venice – in wanting to emulate the achievement of reaching last season's final in Moscow.
That was Avram Grant's last match in charge and although Spaletti was touted by some agents as a possible successor, the Italian was never really in the running to pip Scolari to the post. His star, however, has waned. Now Spaletti, after Roma's worst start to a league season in 45 years, and with four consecutive Serie A defeats leaving them fourth from bottom, is clinging to his job. He took time yesterday to praise Chelsea – and perhaps defuse expectation with his players struggling so wretchedly – by lauding the advances that Scolari has made with this talented squad.
"It [Chelsea] is one of the best 10 teams in the world, but not the best. We are one," Scolari said quickly as he anticipated the potential for hubris although there was also a little boast when he declared that he was "more beautiful" than his predecessor. That was in jest, of course, designed to relax Salomon Kalou who was sitting next to him and had been asked how Chelsea this season compared to last. "I was joking with Kalou, because he is shy," Scolari said when urged to expand upon his comment on looks. "I try to make him more free, only this."
Liberation, and a lighter touch, has been his aim so far and despite, by his own admission "one or two games [in which] we haven't played well and we paid for this" it has been a success. "We are playing very well," Scolari said. "But we need to get into more finals, win more finals."
The big one is this one and a victory this evening in Group A would probably see Chelsea through to the knock-out stages although they will have to perform without Ashley Cole. After a scan the left-back has been diagnosed with a small tear to his calf, which also rules him out of Sunday's league meeting with Blackburn Rovers. Injuries have had to be accepted by Scolari, who has coped brilliantly with depleted resources and will continue with Nicolas Anelka in attack this evening as Didier Drogba is still some way short of match sharpness with the suspicion lingering that he is not central to Scolari's plans.
For so long he was Chelsea's talisman and Roma may well spring a surprise by including their own, Francesco Totti, who trained yesterday and declared himself fit despite fears that the inflammation on his knee, a legacy of surgery last season, would rule him out. Roma need him.
Chelsea's last visit to this city came in the first flush of Roman Abramovich's ownership when they thrillingly brushed aside Lazio, who share the stadium, 4-0. Such is Chelsea's prowess that they could easily repeat that scoreline tonight as they attempt to give themselves the chance to book a place – if not yet a hotel – for the Eternal City next May.
Roma (4-1-4-1, probable): Doni; Cicinho, Panucci, Mexes, Riise; De Rossi; Taddei, Brighi, Pizarro, Vucinic; Totti.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1, probable): Cech; Bosingwa, Alex, Terry, Bridge; Mikel; J Cole, Deco, Lampard, Malouda; Anelka.
Referee: L Medina Cantalejo (Spain).