Clash of Coaching Egos Coming Up

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 need to, 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.

5 comments about "Clash of Coaching Egos Coming Up".
  1. Brian Something, April 29, 2010 at 9:33 a.m.

    It was hugely disappointing to see Inter win. A look at the stats from yesterday's game showed they had no intention to play soccer. Possession: 76-24% Barca. Total shots (on and off goal): 16-0 Barca. Passes completed: 555-67 Barca. Plus, I love it when a team that relentlessly cheats (with hacks and shirt grabbing) starts crying about a supposed dive.

    Contrary to most German and Van Gaal-coached teams, Bayern actually play an exciting brand of soccer, at least in the Champions League. Unfortunately, Inter will no doubt suck the life out of the final like they did last night.

  2. Ted Westervelt, April 29, 2010 at 9:57 a.m.

    Perhaps this would be a good point to wonder if, despite claims from legions of pro MLS naysayers, the open league, promotion relegation sky is not falling? Does the drop off in English Euro performances illustrate that football excesses can correct themselves without the imposed mediocrity of a closed single entity system? That, just like in the Great Depression, their often maligned risky open league thrives in hard times, and that some luxury talent can be sacrificed for the financial health of even the most unlimited clubs? Not that I expect it will lend any courage to MLS moonlighters. But it should.

  3. Ted Westervelt, April 29, 2010 at 10:03 a.m.

    Shoot - I forgot to place an asterisk after "English Euro performances"!

    COYW, and a shout out to the pride of Nacogdoches.

  4. Antonio Nascimento, April 29, 2010 at 10:19 a.m.

    Well,you might agree or disagree, but the Inter players played their hearts out and gave everything they had, and defend very well deserving to be in the final. The system used was the only way to play against a quick and talented Barca, and Guardiola was out coached again, he did not change their game plan to open up Inters' defense. Almost, but almost is not enough.
    Don't blame the fact the players did this or that, or the ref this or that... They all do it, one way or the other. The goals count inside.
    In the final you will see a total different Inter, my prediction Inter will win by 2-0; Maicon with 2 goals.

  5. Kent James, May 3, 2010 at 9:21 a.m.

    Barca was clearly the better team, and Brian F's post hits the nail on the head. Inter truly sucked the life out of the game, as was their intent from the get-go. I hope Bayern doesn't allow them to do that in the final. Mourhino's coaching brilliance was on display; you're two goals up on aggregate, get everybody back into your box and try to hang on for 90 minutes. Brilliant. It takes a genius to come up with such an innovative strategy. The only thing I can fault Guardiola for is not bringing Pique up earlier; once Inter went down a man and it was obvious they were not even attempting to attack, why not station one of your best headers in the box and keep serving them balls? If you can't get through the crowd, go over them. If they can't score directly, they can knock it down to players like Messi who could. It wouldn't be the prettiest soccer but it would make Inter pay for putting everyone in the penalty area. Once you get two goals, that would force Inter to actually try to go foward, then Barca could have dismantled them as they should have. It was particularly disappointing because Barca's tying goal was disallowed for a phantom handling call. Barca was the better team and should have advanced. But soccer can be a cruel game.

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