By Paul Gardner
Inter Milan vs. Bayern Munich was not the Champions League final that we thought we were going to get. Certainly not the one that many -- including me -- would have preferred. But there you are -- that’s what we’ve got, and there’s little to argue with in the semifinal results.
Before that, maybe -- I think Bayern had some quite extraordinary luck to get as far as the semis (we’re not going to forget that ridiculous offside goal against Fiorentina), but Bayern made the most of its opportunity. It was absolutely the better side against Lyon.
As for Inter, it did everything necessary, a rather typically Italian tournament job, always being good enough when it mattered most. So Inter vs. Bayern it rightly is.
Taking a look at the semifinals, we have to deal first with some contentious referee decisions. Firstly, in the second leg of the Lyon vs. Bayern series, the red card to Lyon’s Brazilian defender Cris. Ridiculous, really. Referee Massimo Busacca’s yellow-card on the foul was questionable anyway, but what followed was plain farce. Cris wandered off, smiling, then clapped his hands, just two times -- presumably that was a sarcastic comment on what he saw as a poor decision. For that gesture, he got his second yellow, and disappeared down the tunnel.
Busacca was, I suppose, acting under Rule 12 which requires a caution for “dissent by word or action,” or maybe under the “unsporting behavior” clause, or maybe both. Whichever, he is fully entitled to see Cris’s clapping as punishable with a yellow. Except that we need consistency. I have not looked at the tape of the game, I do not needto, to find an example -- there will surely be several -- of players from both sides protesting against Busacca’s calls -- either by shouting, or by arm-waving. That is now standard behavior. But none of those players were shown yellow cards.
I do not think the red card affected the game -- Lyon was a beaten team by then. But Busacca’s sudden decision to apply a rule he consistently ignored throughout the rest of the game is simply bad refereeing. Ivica Olic’s goals were satisfying rather than spectacular, neat, decisive finishes, to neat unspectacular approach play. Without Franck Ribery on the field (suspended for the final after an awful foul in the first game against Lyon which was immediately and justly red-carded) Olic looks like a new player. Assuming that Ribery’s three game suspension is not lifted (you never know when top clubs send their teams of lawyers into action) then the suddenly lethal Olic becomes a player for everyone to watch in the final.
In the other semifinal game, it was always asking a lot to expect Barcelona to overcome the 3-1 deficit it had suffered in the first game. A 2-0 win would be enough, but Inter’s coach Jose Mourinho knows how to arrange his team to protect a lead. A back four of world class South American players -- Maicon, Lucio, Walter Samuel and Javier Zanetti -- certainly helps. Ironically, what made Inter’s task rather more straightforward was referee Frank De Bleeckere’s decision to red card Thiago Motta. At that point, Inter had an hour to play with 10 men, and if there had been any question about the tactics before then, they were banished: it would be industrial-strength defense from then on. The stats show Inter with just one shot (off target) in the entire game.
Even so, the game was certainly compelling, because Barca had so much of the ball, and came so close on a number of occasions: Lionel Messi forced Julio Cesar into a brilliant save, while much later, from a Messi pass, Bojan missed badly with a header. Then, when Barca finally got a goal, it should have been nixed for offside against the scorer Gerard Pique. So things even out -- because Diego Milito’s goal in the first leg had been offside.
But the goal-that-wasn’t was much more controversial. Bojan had the ball in the net in added time but De Bleeckere annulled the score because of what he saw as a handball by Yaya Toure, when it looked much more of a case of ball-to-hand, than hand-to-ball. That was a “goal” that would have put Barca in the final, so the decision was a crucial one.
So what can we expect from a Bayern Munich vs. Inter Milan final? For a start, we can expect that it will be viewed as a battle of the coaches, Louis van Gaal vs. Jose Mourinho. A billing the sport can do without, for these are two of the least lovable characters in soccer. Mourinho got in first and dubbed himself “the special one” -- but you know van Gaal would like that title too. Two men in love with their own image, two men with a string of trophies to their names.
Both have won the European title before -- van Gaal with Ajax in 1995, Mourinho with Porto in 2004. And both are eminently capable of behaving like idiots on the sidelines. I counted 18 short camera takes of Mourinho yesterday. Increase that for the final, double it up because Louis the Great must get equal time, and you’ve got something like 40-plus telecast interruptions. Hardly something to look forward to.
Nor is the prospect that the final will be dominated by rigid -- mostly defensive -- tactics. The forbidding phrase “well-organized” hovers unpleasantly over this game. The hope -- not too strong a one where these two coaches are concerned -- is that the players can run the game. Less organization and more soccer would be nice -- and that could happen, because there will be plenty of attacking skill on the field. And should the game be a delight to watch, that wouldn’t be the first time this perverse sport has confounded expectations.