The ash clouds and the strike clouds are clearing and I can fly to Madrid this weekend for ITV’s live coverage of the Champions League final.
As you may have read, the match is between Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan and Bayern Munich, coached by Jose Mourinho’s former boss, Louis van Gaal. It will be staged in the Bernebeu Stadium, which may shortly become Jose Mourinho’s new place of work. The pre-match headlines are being made by Jose Mourinho, and whatever happens during the final, Jose Mourinho will be the story.
Call me simplistic but I’ve always been under the impression that football matches are won and lost by the guys who run around the pitch in shorts – rather than the man who runs onto the pitch at the end. But Jose Mourinho’s matches are either won by Jose Mourinho, or lost to a conspiracy – usually a conspiracy against Jose Mourinho.
The Portuguese puppeteer has the rest of us dangling from his strings. According to him, even Chelsea are still apparently Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea – although they are no longer quite as good as Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea because the Premier League is no longer quite as good as Jose Mourinho’s Premier League. At the great clubs of the world, nobody is bigger than the club itself – unless it’s Jose Mourinho’s club.
The argument goes that Mourinho makes himself the centre of attention in order to take the pressure off everyone else at the club. The flaw in the argument is that he is usually as successful in making that club unpopular as he is in making it unbeatable. His favourite fixture is Jose against the World. The intense spirit that he cultivates within a dressing-room is grown on a bed of persecution complexes.
So we love him or we hate him – usually both within the same few seconds. He fascinates and frustrates, he charms and he chides. Most that serve under him remain fiercely loyal to him, but listening to Eidur Gudjohnsen on Sky before the first leg of the semi, I got the impression that even his own players dismiss his rants as self-possessed nonsense. For me, it’s Jose Mourinho’s vanity that does more than anything to keep him in the spotlight.
And that makes this final particularly interesting because if there is a bigger ego in European football, it may just be van Gaal’s. Mourinho’s one-time mentor at Barcelona will happily engage in mind games with his former charge. Already, he is teasing Jose by suggesting that he is a cautious coach, hell bent on winning at all costs with no interest in entertaining. A miffed Mourinho has responded with a bristling defence of Inter’s style.
What van Gaal really wants is for Mourinho to respond by instructing his players to attack Bayern on Saturday night. He is trying to tempt the Special One to put his reputation before the best interests of a team that is at its best when counter-attacking. If Real Madrid are seriously courting Mourinho they will expect him to build a team that wins the Real way. Inter are not really equipped to do that, and their manager may sacrifice their best chance of winning if he allows van Gaal’s taunts to change their approach.
For once, I think this match may be won and lost by the men in suits.