Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Special One's finest hour...

It was the culmination of months of planning and preparation, executed with precision and enthusiasm. Truly a memorable event and one that Inter Milan fans will surely never forget should they end up winning the final…

I am, of course, talking about Jose Mourinho’s post game celebration following the final whistle of the Champions League semifinal (in which his Inter Milan defeated defending champions Barcelona at their Spanish home, the Nou Camp.) It was everything that the self titled “Special One” stands for: gluttonously self serving, extremely distasteful but, at the end of the day, completely deserving.

After all, this was the man who won the Champions League with comparable minnows FC Porto in 2004. Now, having come to the home of (and stood toe to toe with) the finest team in the world, Mourinho could be forgiven for a display of unbridled emotion. Italians haven’t seen a field general of this caliber since Julius Caesar and, after all the bluster and endless posturing; Mourinho confidently put his money where his mouth was.

Now, for those who don’t much about the Portuguese manager, just know that he invented the nickname that has stuck with him throughout the last six years. After previously winning the Champions League (Europe’s equivalent to the Super Bowl) in 2004, Mourinho then introduced himself to English fans at London club Chelsea by saying, “please, don’t call me arrogant, but I’m European champion and I think I’m a special one.”

The “special one” has become synonymous with Mourinho and vice-versa. And look at his track record if you think it’s ill-deserved. Countless trophies during his time in Portugal (including UEFA League and Champions League wins), consecutive Premier League trophies while at Chelsea (their first titles practically since the days of Henry VIII) and now the possibility of a second Champions League crown to add to last year’s Italian League win at Inter. That’s among the best managerial resumes in the world, considering his success in multiple, topnotch leagues in such a short span.

This past Wednesday he took his act (oh, and his team) into one of the epicenters of world soccer for what was guaranteed to be a seminal moment. Having begun his career at Barcelona as a translator, Mourinho returned to a packed house with typical theatrics were on full display. Few men savor the chore of heading into the Nou Camp knowing they have to hold the likes of Xavi and Messi at bay, but the Special One seemed to bask in the spotlight’s glow. Yet this was merely a culmination of efforts, the foundation for success having been laid the previous week in the first leg of the two-game semifinal.

In that first game, Mourinho had shown his resourcefulness and his players showed why they’re one of the best units in the world. Deploying three forwards and Real Madrid castoff Wesley Sneijder behind them, Inter were determined to fight fire with fire (at least initially) and attack. Coupled with weird circumstances (like how Barcelona had to travel from their home to Milan via bus due to the Icelandic volcano) everything went according to plan.

Their tactics having paid off, Inter snatched a 3-1 home win in the first leg. It was a great performance by Sneijder especially. Having been the odd man out at Madrid last summer after Ronaldo and Kaka were signed for a not-so-small fortune, he acquitted himself well that night at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza. Pulling the midfield strings like a maestro, he passed the ball in a way usually displayed by his Catalan opposite that night, Xavi.

Inter Milan have not looked this focused on such a big stage since the days of Helenio Herrera in the 1960’s, but they took their cue from Mourinho. With characteristic bluster and bravado, he took the field having already planted the seeds of controversy via his typical media mind games. He declared “for Barcelona, it’s (the Champions League) an obsession.” Who knows if this kind of thing really works, but the home side certainly looked less assured than Mourinho’s boys.

Even after the controversial red card to one of his midfield anchors (the highly underrated Thiago Motta), Inter showed a resolve not generally displayed by such a high profile team. Everyone in the forward and midfield lines hustled tirelessly on defense (a concept cross-town rival A.C. Milan has forgotten).

The forwards countered when they could and the midfield shepherded and blocked, but Inter’s defense was Mourinho’s strongest arm. In Lucio, Maicon, Javier Zanetti and Walter Samuel they may have players from traditional South American rivals, but paired together they form a water tight unit.

So now it’s onto the final for Inter where they’ll face Louis Van Gaal’s resurgent Bayern Munich. The return of a German team to the final is an encouraging sign and they aren’t to be underestimated. It should make for a grounding battle in the final, where someone unlikely will probably play the hero (my votes for Inter’s Goran Pandev).

In the mark of a man who almost unbelievably matches his substance with his grand style, Mourinho will not dwell on his victory for too long, as he still has crucial domestic games to take care of. Yet somewhere deep down, I’m sure the Special One’s already thinking about how best to describe this victory when he’s talking to the directors at Real Madrid this summer about a job. If there’s one thing he’s even better at then getting results on the field, it’s his uncanny ability to get them off of it.

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