Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho has dropped the strongest possible hint that he might hold on to his midfield star, Michael Essien, and release him only a few days to the start of the 2008 African Nations Cup tournament, possibly in defiance of the 15-day FIFA regulation on release of players for tournaments.
Essien's absence from the 2006 Nations Cup in Egypt after an injury in a Premiership clash sparked off controversy and suspicion that Chelsea's Portuguese coach might have convinced the Ghanaian to skip the tourney.
However, Mourinho acknowledged the importance of Essien's participation for the Black Stars in CAN 2008 as much as featuring for Chelsea in the Premiership, an intention of purpose that could get the player embroiled in another club versus country row.
"I hope he can help your country to succeed in the African Cup in your country," he told the media at a news conference in Accra, as the London club began a five-day charity work with Right to Play in Ghana.
"I hope the people of Ghana will recognise that I need him too at Chelsea. Michael wants to play for Ghana; Ghana needs him in a competition and that is good for him.
"However, it won't be good for me to release Michael for 15 days to be training with the national team when Chelsea have important matches, but I will try to release him only for the tournament."
With no competitive football to worry about, the Portuguese coach appeared more relaxed with the local and international media, opening up his usually unseen humorous side, which was in sharp contrast with the mostly stern and ranting figure seen of him on the touchline during Chelsea games.
The January 20-February 11 tournament is providing the Chelsea coach with sleepless nights as he could lose his African quartet of Essien, Ivoriens Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou and Nigerian John Mikel Obi at a critical period in the English Premiership.
"The African Cup worries me and we think a lot about it. It's very bad for Chelsea, something we are not comfortable with but we can't change," Mourinho acknowledged what is becoming worst fears of managers with African legion.
Two seasons after Chelsea prised Essien from Olympic Lyon for a club and African record fee of $46.1 million, Mourinho let out an open secret that the Ghanaian star was his pet player whom he described as "special and magnificent" and the darling boy of the Chelsea supporters.
On the evidence of his display in the just-ended season, Essien is one particular player in whom the coach is looking up to for Stamford Bridge next season.
"Nobody regrets the money spent on Michael after a difficult negotiation. He is a high-performance player in consecutive months unlike some big players who perform well but just for a while. His adaptability to several positions makes him a special player.
"This season Chelsea had a lot of problems but he adapted and made a lot of contribution to our success and that's why Chelsea fans voted him as the best player. That acknowledgement from the fans is the best recognition any player can have. He's magnificent and I hope next season he can put up his best."
As the controversial coach waxed lyrical about his midfield powerhouse he describes as 'the train' because of his power and dexterity on the field, he mentioned with pride Essien's charming personality outside football
"Essien is a great man, Ghanaians should be proud of him because of the way he behaves in sport and in life. He's not just a great footballer, he's a great man."
Story by Maurice Quansah