I’ve always rather admired Jose Mourinho’s insouciant charm as a person. Of course the Football Media in this country are completely and bizarrely obsessed with him to the point of Gary Neville/Paul Scholes homo-erotic slobbering. Chelsea fans are, of course, also besotted with him and given his history with their club it’s easy to see why.
However, Mourinho’s qualities as a football coach are less easy to admire. It would be wrong to dimiss his ‘default’ style as entirely negative, but his teams do tend to favour attrition over flair and that was clearly demonstrated last night as Mourinho’s Inter Milan ground out a second leg Champions League semi-final victory over Barcelona, the darlings of football romantics everywhere.
In Catalunya, Mourinho is routinely derided as ‘The Translator’, a reference to the role he fulfilled whilst acting as Bobby Robson’s assistant at Camp Nou in the late 90’s. That has clearly stung Mourinho, whose comments about Barcelona in the days leading up to this widely-anticipated match had the same effect as throwing petrol on a bonfire. Massive amounts of whistling and jeering greeted Mourinho as he joined his players on the pitch whilst they warmed up last night, but he seems to be able to harness all the antipathy and convert it into an Alamo-type mentality among his players.
The match itself will not live long in the memory. It was like one of those Attack v Defence exercises that clubs sometimes use in training. Barcelona prodded and probed and passed but could not get past Inter’s defences until former United centre-back Gerard Pique swept through them like an ocean liner doing a three-point turn in Southampton Water and by that time you sensed it was all too little, too late.
At the final whistle, Mourinho raced across the pitch to share the moment with his players and with the small group of Inter fans who were perched up on the umpteenth tier of the Camp Nou, probably in a different postcode to the pitch.
Mourinho celebrates as Inter go through….
Inter will now play Bayern Munich in a final that few expected and that few outside Lombardy and Bavaria will relish too much. Mourinho now comes up against another of his former mentors, Louis van Gaal. Mourinho has said that whilst Bobby Robson taught him about motivation, van Gaal taught him about preparation and defensive organisation. Doesn’t sound too promising, really, does it?
Of course, the reason all this concerns me more than a little is that Jose has been widely touted as Sir Alex Ferguson’s eventual successor at United. In some way, it would be a perfect fit – Mourinho is a serial trophy winnner wherever he goes, he inspires fierce loyalty among his players, he’s a media megastar and his ‘Us against the World’ philosophies are akin to those Sir Alex has used for years.
However, at the root of all Ferguson’s grumpy demeanour is a romantic who is in love with the power of attacking football and its ability to redeem just about everything. Fergie has been a perfect fit for United for precisely that reason, picking up on Matt Busby’s attacking philosophies which are now seemingly hardwired into the club’s DNA.
Last night, aside from the Inter/Barca affair, I also caught the highlights of the United U-18’s away game versus City at Platt Fields. United’s reserves under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have already won their League and the U-18’s under Paul McGuinness are strongly placed to do the same, with City nonetheless hot on their heels. City took an early advantage in this one, with 2 goals in as many minutes in the first half, but that commitment to attack was to surface again as United struck back in the second half with a magnificent goal from the increasingly-impressive Paul Pogba, followed by two – a snap shot from 20 yards and a towering back-post header – from Josh King, the latter coming – as is now traditional in games against City – in added time at the end of the game. The U-18’s have certainly reaped the rewards of their adventure, because any kind of win away to bottom-placed Bolton on Saturday will ensure that they win their section of the Academy Premier League.
It was a thrilling fightback, so typical of United and I do question whether Mourinho is really the right man to succeed Fergie if only because his first instinct is always to defend, not attack. A lot of United fans will be wondering if a Mourinho team would take the same risks and be as committed to attack. But before we get too carried away we should perhaps recall United’s 2008 semi-final first leg against Barcelona (a 0-0 draw), that was every bit as dull as last night’s game, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to judge Mourinho. As managers are prone to say, they are in the results business and few Inter fans who are today enjoying the prospect of their club’s first European Cup Final since the 1970’s will be over-concerned about how they got there. And with such a prize at stake, who’s to say that United’s fans would be any different?
Josh King and Paul Pogba – two hopefully destined for the top