Tuesday 20 February 2018

Darkness versus the light

Special night on cards as master tactician Mourinho bids to suffocate Barca's brilliance

Jose Mourinho. Photo: Getty Images
Jose Mourinho. Photo: Getty Images

Henry Winter in Barcelona

BARCELONA pride themselves on being "more than a club'' and tonight they host more than a game.

Jose Mourinho's back in town, sending the mercury hurtling towards the heavens, swaggering around with two bodyguards and promising to destroy the Catalans' "obsession'' with reaching a final at the home of their reviled rivals, Real Madrid. Not since Oliver Reed dived into the lobster tank at a famous fish restaurant here has a visitor created so many waves.

More than a game. If Mourinho proves more than a match for Pep Guardiola, stifling Lionel Messi again and protecting Inter's first-leg advantage, than the perception of La Liga and the Premier League as the dominant leagues in Europe will be shredded. Serie A is back.

More than a game. If Inter's collection of they-shall-not-pass defenders and canny counter-attackers progress, the purists will see it as a triumph of the forces of darkness over the elegant ambassadors of the age of enlightenment.


But football is about ugly men like Walter Samuel, a knave among defenders, as well as Messi, a crown prince among attackers. It's about game-plans, and few concoct tactical designs better than Mourinho.

It says much for Mourinho's box-office appeal that even his press conferences are all-ticket. There wasn't enough room to swing a Catalan as the Portuguese took centre-stage, sending cameras into motor-drive, and started lobbing his polished hand-grenades about.

Mourinho essentially declared that Inter had the "purer'' motives in seeking to reach the final, as Barcelona were simply determined to flaunt themselves in Real Madrid's front yard.

"We want to follow a dream,'' Mourinho said. "But it's one thing to follow a dream and another to follow an obsession. For Barcelona it's an obsession called Madrid and Santiago Bernabeu. Our dream is more pure than obsession. A dream is about pride.

"It's an obsession you can see and feel. I was here in 1997 and I lived a Spanish Cup final at the Bernabeu between Real Betis and Barca. It seemed like we won the World Cup. To have a Catalan flag in the Bernabeu is an obsession. It's anti-Madridismo.''

Formerly translator and assistant here, Mourinho had some kind words for people who shaped his past here but never a respectful nod to the celebrated sporting institution itself. A cynic would suggest that Mourinho was ensuring he kept onside the impassioned followers of Real Madrid, who will have a vacancy for coach this summer.

Mourinho was charging down memory lane. "Do you owe Barcelona?'' he was asked. People yes, club no.

"I owe Bobby Robson because he gave me the chance to work in Barcelona,'' was the reply. "I owe Louis van Gaal because he wanted me to stay for three more years. I owe every person in the squad because they gave me a lot.''

In classic Special One fashion, he then managed to present himself as the saviour of Inter while mentioning his past achievements. So, what would reaching the final mean? "The only thing it means is to meet the Inter dream,'' replied Mourinho. "I cannot say it's my personal dream because I won the Champions League before.'' Really?

"Of course I want to win again and again, but I've won it and this Inter generation never did it. It's nearly 40 years since Inter last played the final (1972) and it's a dream for everybody. So, if I can give my contribution to help the Inter fans, the players and president (Massimo) Moratti to reach a dream, I will be very, very happy.''

Guardiola, a calm, dignified figure, sought to remind the world that the pressure was on both teams.

"Inter have a lot of desire to arrive in the final, but they have to know we have desire to play in the final in Madrid,'' said the Barcelona coach, rather underlining Mourinho's "obsession'' point. "We want to reach the final and we have a good enough team to do it."

Guardiola was at Camp Nou as Mourinho began his rise up the ladder.

"I didn't see Mourinho would become a coach otherwise I would have gone to see the president of the club to tell him to sign him as a coach,'' shrugged the former Barcelona midfielder.

"Maybe in the future, Mourinho can come to coach this club, I don't know.''


Judging by the fans' splenetic reaction to Mourinho's presence last night that might be tricky.

Mourinho was so confident that he even began naming his team.

"Julio Cesar, Maicon, Lucio, Samuel, Zanetti, Cambiasso, Sneijder, Motta, Eto'o, Milito.'' Pandev? "You want to know everything?''

He trusted his players to kill the space around Messi. "If I play against Messi, it will be 50-0 and I won't touch the ball,'' smiled Mourinho, who will leave the marking work to Thiago Motta and Esteban Cambiasso.

As ever, Mourinho was ready. "We've come a long way in Europe,'' he said. "We had a difficult group with the European champions. We had Chelsea, who were one of the contenders, and an angry candidate because of the way they were dumped out in the semis last season. We had CSKA, a good team.''

Now Inter have Barcelona. And Mourinho has more than a stage. (© Daily Telegraph, London).

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