Sport Soccer

Tuesday 25 April 2017

Inter mission can tame Barca's beauty

Mastermind Mourinho's tactical plan will be tested to the limit by Catalans' own 'Special One' Messi

Jose Mourinho will have a special plan for Lionel Messi in tonight's Champions League semi-final but Barca boss Pep Guardiola has used different formations to get the best out of the Argentinian forward. Photo: Getty Images
Jose Mourinho will have a special plan for Lionel Messi in tonight's Champions League semi-final but Barca boss Pep Guardiola has used different formations to get the best out of the Argentinian forward. Photo: Getty Images

Pete Jenson

So far so good for Jose Mourinho. Some friendly fixture planning has given his team an extra day's rest: a cloud of volcanic ash has grounded around 63,000 flights throughout Europe including the one set to bring tonight's opponents to Milan, and Uefa have even appointed a Portuguese referee to take charge of the game. All he has to do now is out-think Pep Guardiola.

Mourinho and Guardiola's paths coincided in the late 1990s as the latter played out his final seasons at Barcelona before moving to Italy while Mourinho served as a translator and coach to Bobby Robson and then Louis van Gaal. They also shared the stage two summers ago when both men wanted to take over from Frank Rijkaard as first-team coach at the Nou Camp.

Mourinho laid out his plans to the club's kingmakers and convinced at least half of the Barcelona board. But president Joan Laporta knew the former Chelsea coach was asking for a lot, both financially and in terms of who was to be signed and sold. He thought the cheaper, and just as effective option, would be to hand the reins back to the former player and coach Johan Cruyff, who could use young B-team manager Guardiola as his assistant.

"You don't need me," Cruyff famously told Laporta. "Pep is ready." Eighteen months and six trophies later, overlooking Mourinho appears to be the decision of the century, but there is no disparaging the current Inter manager. Barcelona's supporters might have sung, "You're just a translator" to Mourinho when Barcelona beat Inter at the Nou Camp in the group stages, but Guardiola is well aware that his adversary has what it takes to knock out the current holders.

Impression

Former vice-president Josep Mussons has been recalling the first impression that Mourinho made when he turned up at the club in 1996 with Bobby Robson. Mourinho was left in the offices of the Nou Camp as Robson was taken to near by Sitges, where he would be staying.

"Mourinho spoke for two hours with our physical trainer, Paco Seirul lo, in my office and it was obvious he had an incredible understanding of the game," Mussons said. "For the first time in my life I cancelled all my appointments because it was such a joy to hear them talk. Not since the legendary Helenio Herrera had I enjoyed myself so much."

Former player Jose Maria Bakero recalled: "He was a smart guy with some very strong convictions about football and a great ability to analyse the game."

That parallel with Herrera has also been made in Italy, where Inter fans hope Mourinho can repeat the achievements of the former Barcelona and Internazionale coach. Under Herrera, Inter won the European Cup in 1964 and '65. Since then, 45 years have passed without success. It has been 38 years since Inter have even reached a final and seven years since their last semi-final.

Sandro Mazzola, who played in both European Cup-winning sides, believes Mourinho can become a latter-day Herrera: "He trains the brain and then the legs just like Herrera. Helenio would show you a photograph of the player who would be your direct rival on the pitch and tell you everything about him. Now there is nobody who studies the opposition the way Mourinho does. He will have watched hours and hours of videos of Barcelona playing."

Inter midfielder Thiago Motta believes Mourinho got things right against Chelsea in the last round and will repeat the trick against the current holders: "Against Chelsea we played a very professional game. Mourinho did a fantastic job of getting us right mentally and we went into the game knowing that if we worked hard we would win the tie."

Tonight's game also pits Samuel Eto'o and Zlatan Ibrahimovich against their old clubs and Motta believes the decision to trade one for the other is something else Mourinho has got right. Guardiola's decision to sell Eto'o will be tested against Mourinho's decision to let Ibrahimovich leave so that he could sign the player he wanted when he was the Chelsea boss. The winner of the Eto'o versus Ibrahimovich contest will go a long way to deciding who wins the battle of the coaches.

Then there is the tactical struggle that will be fought over Leo Messi. As coaches come up with new ways to try to stop the world's best player, Guardiola has been forced to come up with better ways of using him on the pitch.

The days of Messi being employed wide on the right of Barcelona's front three look to have gone. As a consequence, employing an ultra-defensive left-back no longer serves as a way of stopping him. Last season Guardiola used Messi as what the Spanish call a 'false centre-forward' in the big games against Real Madrid and against Manchester United in the Champions League final. Playing centrally but much deeper than two more advanced wide players he destroyed Real and was hugely influential in the win over United.

This season he has repeated that tactic and at times gone a step further by changing the 4-3-3 system to 4-2-3-1 employing Messi behind a centre-forward, who would be Ibrahimovic tonight should Guardiola start with that formation. Mourinho is considering pushing Maicon into midfield to help suffocate Messi's Xavi-inspired supply line and it seems a triangle of the Barcelona No 10's countrymen will have the task of stopping him when the ball reaches him.

Left-back Javier Zanetti will be asked to deal with him when he pops up on the right wing. Walter Samuel will close him down when he finds himself in centre-forward territory and midfielder Esteban Cambiasso will have to deal with him when he drops into midfield.

There will also be a change in mentality. After the 2-0 defeat in the group stages to Barcelona, Mourinho said: "I thought my players would go out with less fear than they did." Tonight the emphasis will not just be on who plays where but that everyone plays with greater confidence.

Everything is in place then for Inter against Barcelona, Mourinho against Guardiola. The Special One against the apparently even more special one. Mourinho once said: "Barcelona is a great club but in my short time as a coach I have won just as many European Cups as them." That was true when he was starting out at Chelsea, but things have changed. Guardiola made it 3-1 to Barca last season -- Mourinho has got some catching up to do. (© Independent News Service)

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