Thursday May 20th, 2010

Saturday's Champions League final between Internazionale and Bayern Munich has come to feel as though it's as much a clash between their respective managers, Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal, as between the clubs. The flamboyant Latin and the phlegmatic Dutchman are linked, of course, by the time Mourinho spent working under Van Gaal at Barcelona between 1997 and 2000.

The paradigm of the pupil overcoming the master was established long before it found its most popular modern incarnation in various Hollywood movies. Given how much has happened to each in the last 10 years, you might have wondered whether either still saw any significance in their meeting. But Mourinho's evident glee in seeing off Barcelona -- the charge across the pitch with finger raised, the subsequent insistence that he could never manage the club -- suggested that there is perhaps something Oedipal to be worked out.

Tactically, at least, both can be said to belong to the same family. Van Gaal followed the path from Ajax to Barcelona first beaten by Rinus Michels in 1971, confirming and strengthening the links between Total Football and the Barcelona style. Van Gaal modified the method of Michels -- and there were those who said his interpretation was mechanistic -- but the style he took from Amsterdam to Catalonia was discernibly Dutch.

Mourinho was no slavish disciple, and has certainly not felt constrained by the classically Dutch demand for aesthetically pleasing football, but he, too, has used 4-3-3 as his basic model, both at Chelsea and now at Internazionale. His sides have usually been adept at pressing -- another characteristic of Total Football -- but Inter showed against Barcelona that they are equally good at sitting back and maintaining defensive shape, unconcerned by aspects such as possession that other sides might regard as basics.

There was something almost nihilistically beautiful about that performance in the Nou Camp in the second leg of the semifinal (10-man Inter lost 1-0 to Barcelona). Yes, once Thiago Motta had been erroneously set off, Inter had their moments of fortune, notably in the simple headed chance missed by Bojan, and then the goal the same player had ruled out for a handball decision that could have gone either way. However, despite that, it was a display to strike fear into coaches across Europe. The message was: No matter how good you are, no matter how astute your passing or thrilling your dribbling, no matter if we have only 16 percent of possession, we can still stop you.

The key now is whether Mourinho opts for similar containment against Bayern, or whether he prefers to take the initiative and press high up the pitch as Inter did against Chelsea, particularly in the second leg. My suspicion is that, without a lead to defend, and facing a team of far more limited attacking options than Barca, he will prefer the more aggressive approach, particularly in the absence of Bayern's Franck Ribery through suspension. Mourinho is a difficult manager to predict -- and at times it can seem that he is making changes almost in order to draw attention to his own importance -- but his key thinking here, surely, will focus on the interrelated issues of how to stop winger Arjen Robben, who has been key to Bayern's progress by cutting in from the right, and how to replace the suspended Thiago Motta at the back of his midfield.

Either Javier Zanetti or Cristian Chivu can play at left back or as a holding midfielder, but the problem is that both would be vulnerable against Robben in a sprint. Zanetti, although 36, reads the game well enough and is quick enough over the first yard to make him the less risky option at left back. The Argentine is comfortable on either foot, which means he should be able to cope with Robben's cutting in-field onto his stronger left foot, but there is then the danger of Bayern right back Phillip Lahm overlapping from fullback.

Inside-out wingers (players who play on the opposite flank of their natural foot and cut inside) such as Robben have become an increasingly prominent feature of modern soccer, but it is notable that all of those who have been successful from an attacking point of view have been coupled with an attacking fullback. Occupy the fullback, as England manager Fabio Capello did with his deployment of Theo Walcott against Danijel Pranjic when England beat Croatia 4-1 in Zagreb in 2008, and the whole flank can be disrupted.

Goran Pandev has usually been used on the left side of Inter's midfield, but his lack of pace is a concern when it comes to tracking Lahm. If he is to leave out Pandev, Mourinho would seem to have three options. He could play Mario Balotelli on the left and hope his pace is sufficient to drive Lahm back; he could play Maicon, who would offer a blend of attacking threat and defensive cover (although it would mean a change at right back, with Zanetti perhaps switching flanks); or he could bring Mcdonald Mariga into the middle of midfield as replacement for Motta, allowing Chivu to play as a left-sided midfielder with Zanetti behind him, which was the left-sided combination that neutered Lionel Messi and Dani Alves in Barcelona.

Changing an effective right side would, frankly, seem a little odd, given that is an area where Bayern is perhaps vulnerable. Hamit Altintop, the likely replacement for Ribery, is a far less threatening presence, and is likely to spend most of the game tracking the forward surges of Maicon, while left back Diego Contento tries to deal with the wanderings of Samuel Eto'o.

As so often in modern football, the key battles seem to be those between fullbacks and wide midfielders, but Wesley Sneijder could have a decisive influence if he escapes the clutches of Netherlands international teammate Mark van Bommel and Bastian Schweinsteiger. With both teams playing two holders plus, in Inter's case, a playmaker, and, in Bayern's case, a second striker in Thomas Muller, the center of midfield looks likely to be too congested for either side really to make decisive inroads there.

In effect, it may come down to which right-sided forward has more of the ball in attacking positions. If it is Eto'o. then Inter can be confident; if it's Robben, then the game should be Bayern's.

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