An enticing rivalry
PRAGUE -- Sporting rivalries are usually at their most captivating when two contrasting personalities are pitted against each other: Niki Lauda and James Hunt; Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe; Evander Holyfield and Michael Tyson. Each pair so different at their core that tussles between them became simply unmissable.
This Friday brings the latest instalment of a fascinating football duel. They have tried admirably to dismiss their importance to the contest, but there is simply no question that Pep Guardiola versus Jose Mourinho is the central plotline of the 2013 UEFA Super Cup.
Encountering both men in quick succession ahead of Bayern Munich and Chelsea's meeting only sharpened the view that these are two utterly divergent characters. Idealism versus pragmatism is at the core of this rivalry, and, at Slavia Prague's Eden Arena, both men played perfectly to stereotype.
Mourinho commands a room in a manner that is part statesmen, part stand-up. His aura, or "stardust" as Premier League chief Richard Scudamore recently described it, is clear to behold, though his charismatic approach can often frustrate. He tends to entertain rather than educate, and though a soundbite is almost always guaranteed, it can be a battle to get a straight answer from him.
On this occasion, an exchange between the self-styled Special One and a local journalist led to the former going hard on the defensive. Mourinho boasts a superior head-to-head record against nearly every manager in the game. Against Guardiola, he does not. When it was put to Mourinho by a reporter that he has struggled to get the better of the former Barca boss in the past, Mourinho appeared more than a little irked.
"Your statistics are wrong and very wrong," Mourinho responded. "But I don't want to discuss that. Because it's not important. It's wrong. Go there and see what happened with Inter in the Champions League semi-final. I won the Spanish Cup final in Valencia, I won the Super Cup in Spain. I was champion in Spain. I won the match for the title in Barcelona with Real Madrid. You are very, very wrong; you are wrong."
Actually, the reporter wasn't. The Portuguese's record against Guardiola reads P15 W3 L7 D5. The plucky member of the press pack refused to yield and asked whether Mourinho had actually read the statistics. "Maybe you are right and I am wrong," Mourinho conceded. "But I don't care. It's not important."
Success is what drives Mourinho and having it questioned -- particularly prior to a match for a trophy he has never won -- really got under his skin. He is a hugely impressive character, but for a man who has stated his intention to become Sir Alex Ferguson's successor as the respected "Godfather" figure of the Premier League, this was a performance more Mickey Blue Eyes than Vito Corleone.
Like his opposite number, Guardiola attempted to deflect the notion of rivalry being important, but when receiving a similar line of questioning to Mourinho, his response perfectly reflected their polarity. Admittedly, it is easier to show humility in the face of favourable statistics, but Guardiola's calm, considered demeanour was in contrast to Mourinho's animated self-defence.
"We are lucky that tomorrow the focus will be on the players," Guardiola said. "The reason why kids love the game is for the players not the coaches. The record is done, the record is for the record books. Football is life, football is the moment. I have won games, and I have lost a lot of games, too.
"I am here for my experience as a coach. I will try to do my best, as I did my best in Barcelona. The records I might remember when I'm a grandfather, but not now."
Mourinho offered no comment when asked about his experience of facing Guardiola's Barca sides during their time in Spain. He simply pointed to the badge on his tracksuit top. "It's white, but it's Chelsea," he said. "I'm only here until 4 p.m. if you want to ask questions about Real Madrid."
Guardiola was more forthcoming.
"The world will see two marvellous teams tomorrow, two marvellous clubs," he said. "I, of course, have a lot of respect for Jose for his career and I have to try to learn from all the coaches around the world. Tomorrow I will try to win, and I suppose he will try to win, too.
"I try to learn [from Mourinho], but it is difficult -- his teams are very good, when you lose the ball, they have fast counter-attacks. He is a master of this. I should work with him to know exactly what is the best, but I don't think it will happen in the future. Everyone knows he is an excellent, excellent trainer. ... Chelsea has a super trainer, and Bayern, too."
His final comment was an example that Bayern's softly spoken coach can also offer both the humour and self-belief that has come to characterise Mourinho. It remains to be seen whether the Special One can capture the modesty that has made Guardiola one of the most respected coaches in the game despite his tender 42 years.
An intriguing prospect awaits -- two masters of their trade with 34 trophies between them doing battle for the 35th. Despite Guardiola and Mourinho's efforts, the spotlight will be tilted firmly at the duel in the Eden Arena dugout on Friday.