Our European guru educates and enlightens
On 24 May 1967, the night before the European Cup final, Inter defender Tarcisio Burgnich was woken by the sound of his teammates retching their guts up in fear.
At that point, the pugnacious stalwart of Helenio Herrera’s La Grande Inter must have known he would not be completing his hat-trick of winners’ medals the next day.
An iconoclastic dictatorial coach, Herrera decided he wanted his team to focus ahead of the final, confining them in an extreme, claustrophobic ritiro.
Already depleted by injuries to Luis Suare and Jair, and with nothing to focus on but the game, Inter bottled the final against Jock Stein’s Lisbon Lions. The point at which La Grande Inter’s aura of invincibility shattered irretrievably probably came when sweeper Armando Picchi advised keeper Giuliano Sarti to let Celtic score because they were going to win anyway.
Inter have never come as close to European Cup glory again. Indeed, in the 43 years since the effective end of the Herrera era, the club has become notorious for, as John Foot nicely puts it in Calcio, “turning collapse into an art form”.
Inter’s rivals have found this tendency so amusing that in 2003 a board game was launched called Perdentopoli, literally Loseopoly, to celebrate the fact that the Nerazzurri had crumbled their way out of another Scudetto.
The best way to cure the club’s long-standing inferiority complex, owner Massimo Moratti decided a couple of seasons ago, was to hire the coach with the most successful superiority complex in European football: Jose Mourinho. And the gamble has paid off.
Exactly how Mourinho works his miracles is still a mystery. He may be a master of Powerpoint presentations (and, via his backroom staff, games like Championship Manager), dossiers and mind games but he is no root and branch reformer like Arsene Wenger.
As meticulous as Mourinho’s preparation is, I can’t imagine him spending much time – as Wenger is reputed to have done – fretting about the training ground’s feng shui.
Whether the water is running the right way is not, I suspect, a question that has ever vexed the brilliant pragmatist who has guided Inter to their first European Cup final for 38 years.
What Mourinho has done, spectacularly, is to communicate his certainty, knowledge and conviction to his players.
In the new issue of Champions magazine, his new midfield genius Wesley Sneijder sums up the difference the Portuguese coach makes to his players by saying: “Mourinho knows”.
He sends his players into battle believing they know every ploy their opponents might try, how to react to most conceivable match situations, which of the other team’s weaknesses they can most profitably exploit – and what threats they need to contain.
Dusan Uhrin, the Czech coach at Euro 96, found the semi-final second leg against Barcelona enthralling because he was fascinated by how brilliantly and thoroughly every detail of Inter’s defensive play had been thought through: to let your opponent complete 555 passes and restrict them to four shots on goal was a magnificent feat.
With the wrong players, Mourinho could end up with a team that is much better informed but none the wiser. But, after reflecting on the lessons of defeat to Manchester United in the last 16 in 2009, he has made sure he no longer has the wrong players.
Mourinho has stopped Inter crumbling in Europe by finally assembling the squad he wanted. Ironically, the purchase of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the move Pep Guardiola hoped would clinch Barcelona’s second consecutive European crown, actually paved the way for Mourinho to bring in the players to complete Inter.
Combative midfielders and defenders like Thiago Motta and Lucio, striker Samuel Eto’o who could play as a target man or lead a counterattack and Wesley Sneijder who brought a creativity, technique, intelligence and range of passing to midfield which has made Inter much harder to predict or nullify.
Inter are now almost universally expected to win, which brings its own dangers. Mourinho needs his players to stick to the game plan. Against a team coached by his old, uber-methodical boss Louis Van Gaal, any hint of complacency, or lack of concentration, could prove fatal.
Mourinho will be aware of that risk. And he will be keen to ensure that the weight of history and expectation does not become a burden as it proved to be, ultimately, even for a team as seasoned as Herrera’s Grande Inter.
He will dissect Bayern for them, identifying their vulnerabilities – man-for-man the Germans probably have a weaker squad – and warning about their strengths.
One intriguing question will be what kind of pattern of play he will try to dictate. Inter have made it to the final by controlling games but not the ball – they have had 45% of possession compared to Bayern’s 58% – but that approach may not be as productive in a final.
The advice on containing Arjen Robben may simply be show him wide. The Bayern No 10’s goals have been unbelievable but he is yet to register a single assist in the competition this season. The Dutchman’s crosses are far less dangerous than his volleys.
Most of all, Mourinho will tell his defenders, try to replicate your success against Barcelona by ensuring that you don’t concede free-kicks in front of – or near – the area.
In closing. the Inter coach will remind his players that they should have no fear because they can beat anyone. After the manner of their victories over Barcelona and Chelsea, his players will believe him.
Will it be enough? Nobody knows. But one thing’s for sure: on 22 May either he or Van Gaal will become the third coach – after Ernst Happel and Ottmar Hitzfeld – to win this competition with two different clubs.
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