From most other football men Jose Mourinho’s assertion that he knows how Manchester United will play in San Siro tonight would sound like impudence, but of course he is Mourinho, he is the star and scriptwriter of his own Oscar-winning movie.
He also knows that in England it is still a show that many ache to see back on the hoardings.
Why? Because in English eyes, which when looking at football are less snobbish than those of Italy, and do not automatically see a world which they were born both to teach and patronise, he remains as embraceable as when he first arrived at Chelsea as the newly crowned master of Europe with Porto.
For many followers of the English game the erosion of his power at Stamford Bridge, the monotony of much of his football – albeit with a record of just two defeats in 12 meetings with Sir Alex Ferguson – the fact that in the Champions League he was never able to reproduce with his new club the certainties he injected into his overachieving Portuguese team, might never have happened.
He remains uniquely special in the scene he ruled for two years of intense effort that brought two Premier League titles. In Italy, despite Internazionale’s current Serie A lead of nine points, it is not so, at least not yet. A formidable figure like Marcello Lippi extends his respect and speaks for many Italian pros when he says that Mourinho has great force and powers of motivation, but the media critics are, so far, much less devoted than their English counterparts.
While acknowledging the consistency of Internazionale’s commitment, they say that Mourinho has brought no great development to the team who are on course for their fourth straight scudetto – but who cut a less than dramatic swathe through their Champions League group. Nothing, they say, has been achieved to suggest he is as good as he thinks he is, but then how could he be?
Such reservation is part of that Italian football snobbery which insists that first you win in Serie A and then, with a measure of restraint, you begin to take your bows.
It is no concern of the Italian football cognoscenti that the Premier League has recently been crowding out the final stages of the Champions’ League, and that last spring United and Chelsea fought out a final that was suffused with extraordinary power. You cannot break down a near 80-year superiority complex – born with the nation’s first World Cup in 1934 – with a few bursts of success, and two European crowns in four years. You cannot, if you like, make saltimbocca out of beans on toast.
It is thus against a background of subtle trial in Italy that Mourinho now takes up a familiar taunting tone when he is pitched against Ferguson, the man to whom he delivered such a withering – and extravagantly celebrated blow – when his Porto knocked United out of the Champions League at Old Trafford in 2004.
But then Mourinho taunts as formally as other football men draw breath and if Ferguson is plainly disturbed – and who wouldn’t be? – at the absence of his defensive bulwark, Nemanja Vidic, we can be sure he will not be cowed in San Siro tonight.
He will say, for one thing, that Mourinho has had his time as the tormentor of the reigning champions of England and Europe. For another, that there can be not a ghost of the kind of shocking irresolution that brought defeat in San Siro in the Champions League semi-final against Milan two years ago. Most vitally, he can also point out that if respect is due to Internazionale’s strike force of Zlatan Ibramhimovic and the revived Adriano, elsewhere United surely carry better reasons for confidence in their ability to progress. Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Dimitar Berbatov are among the most compelling and if Mourinho had made man-for-man comparisons, rather than merely announcing his midfield and attack for tonight, his claim that United will be hanging on with limpet desperation would have demanded something less than forensic examination.
The suspicion here is that the wavering conviction visible at Old Trafford on Saturday against Blackburn, when Edwin van der Sar was absent, and Vidic missed the first hour, was in the way of a temporary lapse. This will be the thundering premise of Ferguson when he addresses his troops and if Mourinho corralled much of the TV time and the newsprint in both Italy and what has become his spiritual home in England the last few days, it is a fair bet that Ferguson has a few pyrotechnics of his own in the works.
Certainly, if he cares to make it, there is the point that no football man alive has less reason to feel as though he is cornered when he walks in the great stadium. Whatever the other qualities of United’s Champions League triumphs in Barcelona in 1999 and Moscow last spring, they were notable for the sheer honesty of his team’s efforts, displays of the football ethos he was hammering home to his charges at Old Trafford, and in Aberdeen before that when his team swept aside Real Madrid in the final of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup.
Yes, it is true, Mourinho is a formidable opponent but it is not he who holds the competitive edge at this latest point of challenge to one of the greatest champions football will ever know. Mourinho guided Porto to a brilliantly functional victory over Monaco in 2004, having produced of the great European performances of discipline and commitment against Deportivo La Coruña in the semi-final. But despite his resources at Chelsea he couldn’t develop that success in the most important club competition of the world; indeed, some would say his tactical limitations, when the pressure was on, were twice exposed by Rafa Benitez.
None of this will matter, of course, if whoever steps in for Vidic tonight proves susceptible to the long-ball game which Mourinho plays routinely now whenever he is confronted with a team of marked passing ability and creativity. However, Ferguson does have the means to deflect his challengers from one point of weakness. The odds have to be that he will able to make them work.
When careers are put at risk, the FA must go beyond red alert
It was generous of the Everton manager, David Moyes, to say that nothing in the track record of Newcastle player Kevin Nolan could have prepared Victor Anichebe for the sickening tackle which could easily have wiped out his season, if not his career.
However, there are times when a kindly reaction to such incidents cannot be entirely appropriate. Nor should the contrition, however genuine, of the culprit carry too much weight.
Last season Arsenal’s Eduardo da Silva paid a terrible price for a tackle which perhaps in some ways was entitled to provoke less rage than Nolan’s atrocious challenge. Certainly Eduardo was the victim of great recklessness.
In the Nolan case there was, it has to be said, evidence of a clearer intention. His apologies were profuse afterwards, and a welcome change from the impression of injured innocence the player displayed when he was first shown the red card.
However, the FA will be failing in its duty if it does not consider routinely reassessing the punishment mostly automatically accompanying a red card. Nolan’s offence flew way beyond the normal requirement of a three-match ban.
Pietersen highlights the folly of ECB’s odd couple
As time passes, there is little or no evidence that Giles Clarke, chairman, and David Collier, chief executive, of the England and Wales Cricket Board, have felt any need to reflect more deeply on their vital roles in the catastrophic agreement with Allen Stanford.
This is both sad and odd, given the ridicule that has been heaped on the game with whose reputation Clarke and Collier were entrusted.
It was bad enough that they breezed through the appalling loss of face that came with the sackings of England captain Kevin Pietersen and coach Peter Moores. Now the folly of their embrace of Stanford has been given nightmare definition by the fallen leader Pietersen. The man who in the end was considered by Clarke, rightly or wrongly, to lack a proper understanding of how to run a cricket team, has now passed on his assessment of Stanford. “He was a sleazebag,” announced Pietersen.
Is there any hope for English cricket? Surely, it gets slimmer each day.Reuse content