Thursday, April 29, 2010

Compact and Organised, Mourinho's Inter Triumph

Derided by many fans as ‘the translator’ during his time as an assistant to Sir Bobby Robson and later to Louis van Gaal at Barcelona, Jose Mourinho, the self proclaimed ‘Special One’ returned to the Camp Nou to script a special triumph over the Champions League holders. The pass completion and possession statistics may have overwhelmingly been in Barcelona’s favour, yet playing for most of the game with 10 men, Internazionale churned out the required result to carve their way into the finals. Lining his team up in much the same way as he had at the San Siro, with only Christian Chivu incorporated as a late replacement for the ostensibly injured Goran Pandev, Mourinho masterminded what must surely go down in the annals of the European competition as one of the greatest defensive performances.

After Barcelona’s demolition of Arsenal in the quarter-finals, all the talk revolved around the charming exploits of Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernandez and the value that pressing from the front holds in contemporary tactical arrangements. Even Inter’s defeat of Chelsea in the round of 16 was attributed to pressing, with the use of Samuel Eto’o and Pandev on the wings credited with having restricted any attacking threat that Chelsea’s full-backs could muster.

Jonathan Wilson who writes an excellent column for the Guardian devoted an entire article to the value of pressing, which he felt is crucial in the modern game, but there was none of that in either of the legs from Inter. Whilst, it could have scarcely been expected from them at the Camp Nou once they had Thiago Motta sent off in the 28th minute, even at the San Siro, Inter were happy to allow Barcelona to have as much of the ball as they pleased within their own half. What they did do well though is closing the pockets of space in front of the centre-backs, which Messi, in particular, is so adept at exploiting. Also confident of dealing with any aerial threat that Barcelona could produce, Inter were content to allow the Catalans to have the ball in wide areas, even permitting them to whip in crosses without serious objection.

Maintaining a solid structure and remaining compact throughout the two legs, Inter denied Barcelona the space in the final third to weave their usually alluring patterns. Just as much as possession played a part in most of Barcelona’s good work, retaining their shape aided Inter Milan in manufacturing a momentous victory. As Mourinho pointed out rather curiously after the second leg, not enjoying possession helped his side maintain a coherent shape and helped deny space to the Barcelona frontline. "We didn't want the ball because when Barcelona press and win the ball back, we lose our position, I never want to lose position on the pitch so I didn't want us to have the ball, we gave it away. I told my players that we could let the ball help us win and that we had to be compact, closing spaces,"

Of course, the team as a whole must be commended for their defensive showing, but much of the credit must go to the Argentinean pair of Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso, both of whom were outstanding over the two legs. Aged 36, Zanetti showcased the value of experience. Deployed at left fullback, he shadowed Messi over the two legs with magnificent guile. Cambiasso, who isn’t lacking in attacking talent, as some may have you believe, guarded the area in front of the back four, breaking up play with vigour and particularly restricting the creative influence of Xavi. The centre-back pairing was also authoritative in both legs. While Lucio was outwardly imposing, his fellow centre-back Walter Samuel, was quietly impressive, dealing especially well with Messi, on the occasions when the little magician was able to slink into the box. Right back Maicon who started edgily in the first leg settled into a fine rhythm over the course of the tie, even scoring the second goal at the San Siro after skilfully controlling Diego Milito’s lay-off.

Although Inter seemingly held the advantage going into the second leg, Barcelona knew that if they scored twice and prevented the Italian side from scoring, they would find themselves participating in the final to be staged at the Santiago Bernabeu, the home of their arch-rivals Real Madrid. A red card to Motta caused by some embarrassing playacting from Sergio Busquets should have played into the hands of the Spanish champions, but strangely it galvanised Inter, who resorted to a striker-less system, moving Milito to the right and Eto’o to the left and pushing Chivu inwards alongside Cambiasso. Had Motta’s dismissal not accrued, Inter may well have been able to hit Barcelona on the counter-attack as they did at Milan. But, instead they were forced to focus almost entirely on maintaining their shape, a task which they accomplished in spotless fashion.

It took Barcelona until the 84th minute to break the Milanese side’s resolve when Gerard Pique playing as a make-shift centre forward escaped the offside trap and finished with aplomb. Soon after, Barcelona were unlucky to have had a goal disallowed in stoppage time for a handball by Yaya Toure in the build-up, which the Ivorian could do little to avoid after being struck by a clearance from point-blank range. Both sides certainly had their share of refereeing favours. Motta’s sending off was dubious to say the least and Milito who scored the third of Inter’s goals at the San Siro was clearly offside, but over the two legs, none can question that Inter deserved to go through, particularly on the back of two supremely resolute defensive showings.

Mourinho’s achievement thought isn’t merely a product of on-pitch organisation. After having been knocked out by Manchester United last season in the round of 16, the Portuguese tactician made several smart moves in the summer. Through the phasing out of ageing players and the sale of the overrated Zlatan Ibrahimović to Barcelona for a hefty fee plus Samuel Eto’o, he ensured that he had enough in the tank to purchase the kind of quality players that he felt would help Inter achieve their European ambitions. Along with Eto’o came Wesley Sneijder, Lucio, Diego Milito and Goran Pandev (signed in January), all of whom have contributed greatly to the team’s accomplishments this season.

The final against Bayern Munich will see Inter start as favourites, but in Louis van Gaal, Bayern have their own tactical mastermind, one who will relish playing Mourinho in his own game. Ousting Barcelona is no doubt a phenomenal achievement, but as Mourinho himself would agree, the outcome of the Champions League is far from settled.

No comments: