Monday 26 February 2018

Managing expectations

Two ruthless and ambitious men come face to face this week, writes Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

W hen Jose Mourinho delivered his injury bulletin on Friday for Tuesday's game against Tottenham in Madrid, Harry Redknapp was among those who didn't believe him. You can't kid a kidder and all that.

Redknapp had been telling his own stories last week. Talking up his injury crisis at the back while playing down any problems with Rafael van der Vaart. His problems might be the other way round.

This week, Redknapp comes up against the master. Mourinho announced that Ronaldo was unlikely to play in the first leg and said Madrid's league games were more important. They would have another opportunity to win the tie in London, he said. Mourinho wouldn't want to miss the opportunity to win in London.

In his recent media blitz across the world, Mourinho told every audience what they wanted to hear but he saved the words he wanted to hear for his English audience. He would come back soon, he said.

When and where Mourinho returns will be a speculative game in which he will do much of the speculating. He is the man who could succeed Alex Ferguson but the Glazers' approach to transfers might not impress him.

Manchester City have the money and the chaos that would appeal to Mourinho. They are in need of a leader to take them out of the wilderness.

When, not where, he returns could be the more interesting question. As he did in Milan before he won the Champions League, Mourinho has irritated many around Madrid.

There are some close observers of the Spanish club who feel he will have to win the Champions League this season if he is to stay. Mourinho would see winning the Champions League as the simplest solution to that problem. Winning things is what Mourinho does to overcome problems. La Liga now seems out of reach after Real's 1-0 defeat to Sporting Gijon at the Bernabeu last night.It was Mourinho's first home league defeat since February 2002.

He has worked at Madrid as he did at Chelsea and at Inter. His ego is a necessary construct to allow players with equally matured egos to see him as their leader,

He shares an agent with several key players at Madrid, including Ronaldo, and he has done what he has done so successfully everywhere he went and persuaded the players that their values are his values; that the cult of his personality is more than just a cult.

He now has layers of his reputation to work with and the astonishing success last season at Inter. That success may not be as immense an achievement as winning the European Cup with Porto, but it might have been a greater accomplishment than his achievements at Chelsea, aided as he was by Abramovich's money.

At Stamford Bridge, Mourinho first demonstrated his genius for getting players to believe in him. Chelsea were not in the doldrums when he arrived. They had finished second and reached the semi-final of the Champions League. Mourinho's press conference announcing he was the special one was designed to create a sense of awe and demonstrate to the players that their manager can handle anything. He does not need to do it any more as his reputation is established but, like all obsessives, Mourinho will not let up.

Tottenham's run in the Champions League has been treated like some sort of fairytale, perhaps because people have the need for fairytales. The reality is different. The reality is that Spurs have come as far as could be expected and it will not be a shock if they go further.

They came out of a challenging group, but no group is too challenging in the Champions League these days.

Tottenham finished top which was an achievement but one helped by the inability of Inter Milan to cope in a post-Mourinho world.

They dealt with the only competitive team in Italy, so their results against Milan were less of a surprise even if the reaction suggested Dagenham & Redbridge had reached the European Cup quarter-finals, not a club backed by a billionaire.

Perhaps this is because last season, when no English team made the semi-finals, it was said that the Premier League was in permanent decline. It is not what it was but, with the exception of Barcelona, Europe might be in parallel decline.

This year there will be at least one English side in the semis and Redknapp will not be without hope.

First, he will manage expectation. His version of Tottenham's resurrection under him is now well known. He took over when they were in the bottom three and he turned it all around.

It is an accomplished act of expectation management by a man who is written off as a Luddite by some.

When the English national side goes from one extreme to the other after Fabio Capello's departure, it is likely that they will turn to Redknapp. Capello cannot massage egos and Redknapp can so, in their endless game of hide and seek, he will be next in line.

Redknapp, for all the doubts that hang around his financial affairs, has managed one thing. He has remained enthralled by footballers or, at least, is able to convince himself and them that there is romance in the game.

He shares this quality with Arsene Wenger. Wenger is not a tactician either but his failings in this regard have been ignored for much longer because he is so obviously an intellectual.

Redknapp has to settle for being street smart and a mocking tone from some. He is castigated for his refusal to make himself look smarter than he is. "Tactics don't win football matches," he said last year and those who thought tactics can do anything sneered.

When Van der Vaart was being hailed every week, he commented on his joy at playing under Redknapp, even if some saw it as faint praise.

"Harry is a very special man, that's why I already feel at home at Spurs. It feels like I'm back on the street. There are no long and boring speeches about tactics, like I was used to at Real Madrid."

Yet in his development of a player like Gareth Bale, he is showing

his gifts as a manager. Bale has developed as a player under Redknapp who has used sound principles which may be old-fashioned but which work. Bale plays along the touchline, making the pitch big and then using his gifts to remarkable effect.

Bale is still struggling with injury but he will probably start in Madrid. Van der Vaart will too. He was an instinctive signing on the last day of the summer transfer window by Redknapp. Van der Vaart brought even more inventiveness to Tottenham, even if Luka Modric is the real driving force for their creativity.

In recent weeks, Van der Vaart and Redknapp have had to deal with the more troublesome aspect of the Dutchman's character. His refusal to sit on the bench when substituted against West Ham angered Redknapp but, more importantly, his inability to complete 90 minutes is unsettling. He has only managed it eight times since his arrival and Spurs may only finish in the top four now if Manchester City implode, which is very possible.

Redknapp faces a week in which he can play down expectation again. He is facing the great Real Madrid and the great Mourinho. This is not a fairytale. This is a clash between ruthless and ambitious men.

Sunday Indo Sport

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport