James Lawton: Mourinho calls the shots to make Italy think again about his style
Wednesday 21 April 2010
Even Jose Mourinho has rarely known a night like this, one in which not only a second Champions League title but perhaps even the keys of European football may have been at least halfway into his grasp.
If Mourinho had some substantial gifts from his Portuguese compatriot referee, including a third goal that was plainly offside, there was no questioning that he had produced from his Internazionale a magnificent response to the challenge of facing the reigning champions of Europe, a team with the potential, some of us may still believe, to touch new levels of excellence.
His reward, surely, is to place himself on the top of most people's list of desired football leadership.
First, though, there was the dream, then the reality. The dream was that Barcelona would do in San Siro what they did at the Emirates a few weeks ago and play football from another planet.
The reality kicked in when Mourinho reminded us again that he hates to appear in other people's fantasies or, as he once put it so pithily, anybody's movie but his own. It certainly looked like another blockbuster from rival director Pep Guardiola when a sudden, silky burst from Barça, and some sub-standard defending from Internazionale's Brazilian stalwart Maicon, allowed Pedro Rodriguez to stroke home a 19th-minute goal for the champions.
Mourinho, though, believes he has equipped his team to reject evidence of superior all-around ability in their opponents. They did that at Stamford Bridge in the outstanding result of this season's Champions League so far and in 11 minutes they suggested they might just be capable of doing it again, this time against a team of such mesmerising skill that being champions of Europe has sometimes seemed like the least of their status.
The suggestion was made by Wesley Sneijder's equaliser and then the confirmation came like claps of thunder when first Maicon, then Diego Milito redeemed themselves spectacularly early in the second half, Maicon for his light-headed neglect of duty in defence, Milito for his profligacy in front of Barcelona's goal.
Their goals landed like a heavyweight's fists on Barça, whose response to their first setback, Sneijder's cool plundering of a cluttered defence, had been little short of serene. At 1-1 Barcelona played the ball to each other as though they had all the time and the space in the world. You could just imagine Guardiola's cool half-time advice that his men were merely required to return to some of the certainties that had carried them on a run of 25 undefeated games and produced the sublime break-out against Arsenal in the Nou Camp earlier this month.
The trouble was that the author of that epic was no longer an undisputed master of every aspect of football in-fighting at the highest level. Inevitably, Lionel Messi produced moments of brilliance, and the smoothness of his control and passing mostly remained as classical as ever, but this time he was no longer a master of sorcery. His threat hardly disappeared but on too many occasions it fell victim to the pressure applied by Mourinho's men.
Pressure, exerted with a relentless, overwhelming intensity of technique and application, is supposed to be the supreme weapon of Barcelona. It drains the opposition, it leaves them besieged by fatigue and a sense of hopelessness.
Last night at San Siro a different, less lovely but no less effective force was applied. It was the pragmatism of Mourinho, a man who has again been less than retiring in outlining his latest ambitions. He says he is out of love with Italian football and concedes that the failure of passion is mutual but, if he is less than revered in most Italian hearts not committed to Inter, we could be sure that what happened guaranteed a new phase of the relationship.
It was the granting of respect – and specifically for a football accomplishment that has always been rated more highly in Italy than in any other corner of the football world. We are talking about giving what is due to a football man who can get a job done against the most formidable of odds. It does not have to be a masterpiece of the beautiful game. It does not have to send ripples of appreciation across the terraces. It just has to get the job done, it has to bring the supreme redemption of a win.
This was the point of Mourinho's hard-nosed team plan, so similar to the one that beat Chelsea in that it relied on an ability to break up the Barça rhythm and inflict damage of your own.
No one would rule out Barcelona's ability to recover lost ground on their own soil – this, after all is no ordinary team – but then nor was Jose Mourinho's achievement.
He did no less than dispute every assumption about the team who had both conquered and enchanted Europe. He pushed the great team on to their heels. He gave a little more credence to the idea that, when the stakes are at their highest, he is indeed a special one.
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