Will the real Special One now stand up at Inter?

Jose Mourinho may have proved an enigma since his move to Italy, but is still the man Manchester United must fear, says Frank Dunne
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The Independent Football

When Jose Mourinho became coach of Serie A’s Internazionale last June he said that he wanted to build a team in his own image. The former Chelsea coach probably has a clear idea of what that means, and he said this weekend that the team which faces Manchester United tonight at San Siro was finally getting there. But most Italians are still trying to figure out exactly who Mourinho is.

Is it the man who holds court in press conferences at Inter’s training ground – relaxed, convivial, lucid and meticulously prepared for every conceivable question? He has even admitted that the famous, apparently off-the-cuff, burst of Milanese slang which he used at his inaugural press conference last year was scripted. This is a man in total control, one who smiles a lot.

Then there is the Mourinho interviewed live on television in the aftermath of a tight match. With the adrenalin still surging and the tension etched into his face, this Mourinho can be abrupt, petulant, hyperbolic, touchy and totally un- reasonable. It’s the Mourinho that Anders Frisk, the Swedish referee who retired prematurely after crossing the Portuguese in 2005, probably still sees in his nightmares. There is arguably something of both sides of Mourinho’s personality in the team who lead Serie A by nine points.

Inter are extremely well organised and pragmatic but will throw every tactical scheme out the window if they are chasing a game. Like Mourinho, they are incredibly stubborn. They always want the last word, and, even when playing badly, usually do.

Saturday’s 82nd-minute winner against Bologna, three minutes after Bologna had equalised, was the most recent example. Inter have dominated Serie A from the beginning of the season but it has taken nine months for Mourinho to make his own a team which Roberto Mancini had led to three consecutive league titles.

The story of Inter’s season from a tactical point of view has been the evolution from a misfiring 4-3-3 system to a slick 4-3-1-2. A firm advocate of the 4-3-3, Mourinho arrived at Inter with a precise plan and asked Inter’s owner, Massimo Moratti, to buy the three players he needed to make the system work: Chelsea’s Frank Lampard, Amantino Mancini from Roma and Ricardo Quaresma from Porto. Lampard would run operations from the centre of midfield while Mancini and Quaresma would provide speed and trickery in wide areas.

Lampard didn’t come and Portsmouth’s Sulley Muntari, signed in his stead, was not a like-for-like replacement. That was a setback for Mourinho, but one he was prepared for. What he couldn’t have foreseen was just how miserably Mancini and Quaresma, the latter now on loan to Chelsea, would fail to link up with striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Mourinho was forced to abandon 4-3-3 and, after flirting briefly with 4-4-2, opted for 4-3-1-2. The key to the new system was his inspired decision to employ the previously out-of-favour midfielder Dejan Stankovic in the hole behind two strikers, Ibrahimovic and the Brazilian Adriano.

Inter had tried to sell Stankovic to Juventus in the summer, only for the move to be blocked by protests from Juventus fans. With the system cemented, Mourinho has been able to identify the players from his 29-man squad who best fit the 10 outfield roles. Behind the front three, he fields a midfield three with Muntari on the left, Esteban Cambiasso in the middle and Javier Zanetti on the right. His favoured central defensive pairing is Walter Samuel, who is missing through injury tonight, and Cristian Chivu. At right-back, the irrepressible Maicon has been ever-present, while at left-back Mourinho seems now to prefer the 18-year-old Davide Santon, a product of Inter’s youth academy, to the Brazilian Maxwell. The Brazilian goalkeeper, Julio Cesar, one of Serie A’s players of the season, is another fixture.

Like Mourinho’s Chelsea, his Internazionale know how to abandon a short-passing game for a more direct approach when the situation requires. When playing technically inferior opponents Inter will dominate possession and patiently wait for goalscoring opportunities to arise. Against teams who pass the ball as well as Inter or better, a category which the current United side fall into, Mourinho has no compunction about bypassing midfield and relying on the strength and improvisation of Ibrahimovic, along with the brute force of Adriano, to batter holes in opposing defences.

Inter’s opponents have dominated possession in only five matches this season: Milan, in both derbies; Juventus at San Siro in November; Catania in January (due to Muntari’s sending-off after 31 minutes) and Roma at the Olimpico. With the exception of the first Milan derby in September, Inter won all of these matches. The return derby this month was a good demonstration of the Mourinho method, with Milan’s ageing central defensive pairing of Paolo Maldini and Kakha Kaladze being bullied relentlessly by Ibrahimovic and Adriano.

Whoever replaces Nemanja Vidic in United’s back line tonight could be in for a torrid time. Mourinho’s tactical acumen is still questioned by Italian football writers, who often give him a lower mark – and these marks are taken deadly seriously – than his rival coach, even when Inter win.

But few question his man- management skills. The way that he has handled players such as Adriano, Stankovic, Ibrahimovic and the 18-year-old striker Mario Balotelli has been critical to Inter’s development this season. With the unreliable, nightclub-loving Adriano and the precocious Balotelli, who wants a regular first-team place, Mourinho has played the bad cop in public and the good cop in private. He has heavily criticised the players’ attitudes in the press, while telling them on the training ground how crucial they are to the team. After Adriano’s recent goal against Milan, the Brazilian ran 40 yards to hug Mourinho. Inter’s winner against Bologna on Saturday was scored by Balotelli, who had come just off the bench. Reinventing Stankovic as a trequartista and transforming Ibrahimovic from a freakishly talented but moody and inconsistent player into a week-in, week-out match-winner, are significant achievements.

Mourinho’s motivational skills may well be his strongest card as a coach. It was after Inter’s 2-1 victory over Catania in September that Catania’s managing director, Pietro Lo Monaco, said that Mourinho needed a “smack in the teeth” for his arrogant attitude. The week before the return match last month Lo Monaco stoked the fires again by warning Inter that they would be “playing against the entire city”. The venue was the Massimino stadium, where a police officer was killed during crowd violence in February 2007.

Mourinho’s reaction? He booked the team into a hotel in the city centre and before the match took the players out for a passeggiata along the main street, Via Etnea, where they were mobbed by youngsters demanding autographs. Inter went on to win 2-0. There may have been a fair degree of this kind of chutzpah in Mourinho’s insistence before the draw for the last 16 that he wanted to play United. But if Mourinho does manage to bloody Sir Alex Ferguson’s nose over the next couple of weeks, his comments will look like an inspired piece of psychology. His Inter would then truly fear nobody.

When Jose met Sir Alex

*Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson have previously met 12 times in five different competitions in the last five years, with the “Special One” far more successful.

25 Feb 2004 Ch League Porto 2 Manchester Utd 1

9 Mar 2004 Ch League Manchester Utd 1 Porto 1

15 Aug 2004 Prem League Chelsea 1 Manchester Utd 0

12 Jan 2005 League Cup Chelsea 0 Manchester Utd 0

26 Jan 2005 League Cup Manchester Utd 1 Chelsea 2

10 May 2005 Prem League Manchester Utd 1 Chelsea 3

6 Nov 2005 Prem League Manchester Utd 1 Chelsea 0

United ended Chelsea’s 40-game unbeaten run with a looping first-half header from Darren Fletcher. The Blues remained 10 points clear of United in third and went on to retain their title.

29 Apr 2006 Prem League Chelsea 3 Manchester Utd 0

26 Nov 2006 Prem League Manchester Utd 1 Chelsea 1

9 May 2007 Prem League Chelsea 0 Manchester Utd 0

19 May 2007 FA Cup

Chelsea 1 Manchester Utd 0 (aet)

The first FA Cup final at the new Wembley went the way of Mourinho as he picked up his last piece of

silverware in England. A tedious 120 minutes was enlivened only by Didier Drogba’s late winner. Mourinho admitted he had deployed negative tactics to stop United playing.

5 Aug 2007 Comm Shield Chelsea 1 Manchester Utd 1 (p)

12 Meetings; Six Mourinho wins

Two Ferguson wins, Four Draws