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Van Gaal's Special relationship

The late Sir Bobby Robson is generally lauded as the mastermind behind the rise of the most prominent manager in club football, yet the right to be known as Jose Mourinho's mentor is not a one-horse race.

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Mourinho was famously hired to work as Robson's 'translator' during his time as Barcelona boss, but the experienced Englishman quickly appreciated his assistant had the potential to become so much more than merely a master of linguistics. Eager and enthusiastic to make his mark, coaching was the ultimate job title the young Portuguese upstart craved and so the former England boss handed him some modest responsibilities.

His budding liaisons with Barca's superstars could easily have come to an end when Robson's tenure as Camp Nou chief concluded and yet the man who succeeded him was equally seduced by the charms of the young Mourinho, with Louis van Gaal seeing hidden genius in his youthful employee soon after taking over as Barcelona boss in 1997.

Many who had followed Van Gaal's fascinating career were stunned that this opinionated and often over-confident coach was willing to take this Portuguese novice under his wing and welcome him into his watertight inner circle, but the master suspected his pupil had something unique.

Offering Mourinho the benefit of his considerable wisdom, Van Gaal saw much of himself in young Jose and was only too pleased to present him with the helping hand he was crying out for.

Now, some 13 years on, he finds himself preparing for a lavish reunion with his one-time protege, with these ex-Barcelona employees revelling at the prospect of a reunion at Real Madrid's Bernabeu arena for Saturday's Champions League final as Mourinho's Inter Milan face Van Gaal's Bayern Munich.

Mourinho's bullish attitude and explosive temperament have ensured he lacks allies among his coaching rivals, but his opponent in this showpiece event is one of the few who finds gushing words of praise for the character he likes to believe used the Van Gaal copybook to turn himself into the top coach he is today.

"Jose may be my opponent in this match, but the first emotion when I think about him is as a good friend," begins Van Gaal, who is duelling with Mourinho to become only the third coach in history to win club football's top prize with different clubs, following Ottmar Hitzfeld and Ernst Happel. "As a person and a football man, I have a lot of time for Jose. We are in touch quite often, speaking on the telephone and sending each other text messages and it is so nice for us to lead our teams to a European Cup final.

"His success in recent years is not a surprise to me as even though he was just a young coach with only raw ambition to rely upon when he worked for me, I could see he had a flair for analysing our opponents. It was obvious he had a wonderful understanding of football. Jose was studious and intelligent and knew how to pull apart the strategy of the other team and it did not take him long to confirm he has everything you need to be a top, top coach.

"I knew Mourinho would fly off one day and he has confirmed he can succeed on his own, winning the Champions League with Porto and league titles at Chelsea and Inter. It's a great record and I have followed his success with pride. I cannot take credit for his achievements, but I was part of his story.

"Maybe he has copied me in some ways as I see some of the discipline I have in my teams instilled in those organised by Jose. We insist our team teams play with total concentration and with everyone switched on to do the tasks they have been given.

"However, we are also different in many ways. Mourinho teaches his team to win at all costs, while my objective is to win with style and attacking play, which is not so easy. Also Jose seems to be very proactive in affecting games. I don't behave in such an extreme way, but that is his personality."

Van Gaal has long portrayed himself as being a step ahead of his rivals in the tactical department, with his self-confidence often being mistaken for arrogance in a career that first saw him triumph in Europe's premier cup competition with Ajax back in 1995.

The wait to add to that solitary success in the Champions League has been long and often painful, but Van Gaal now stands a mere 90 minutes away from realising the dream, and the prospect of lifting the giant silver trophy sends a shiver down his spine.

"If I wasn't confident of winning in Madrid, I'd walk away right now," he stresses. "This Bayern team have been in the zone for several months now and everything is clicking. We are playing good, attack-conscious football, our pressing game is working well and the results keep coming.

"Confidence and self-belief are very high and if we maintain this rhythm, we can beat anyone. Inter are an excellent side, well-organised, a solid unit and ruthless in converting chances. They didn't knock out Chelsea and Barcelona by accident and yet I'd rather be facing Inter than Barca in this final. I still feel my old club has the best team in the world right now, so this is a moment for us to make history and we cannot let it pass."

Both Inter and Bayern are on course for Trebles this season and such a glorious climax seemed improbable for Van Gaal as his Bayern side staggered through the few months of this campaign.

Some even speculated that the Dutchman, who demands a rigid tactical master plan from his players, would be sacked unless results improved, but those who dismissed this 58-year-old as yesterday's man have been left to dip into their reserves of humble pie.

"Whenever you start a new coaching job, it takes time to get your ideas across and to find the right blend of the players you have at your disposal," adds Van Gaal. "Initially, I have to admit, we struggled to gel and the pressure went up a few notches. However, I have been in this game for too long to start doubting my abilities. I knew that sooner rather than later we'd start playing the sort of focused, precise and dominant game I believe in."

"We have given the ultimate answer to those who said I was not doing a good job, but maybe I will have to leave Bayern anyway this summer whatever happens in Madrid. If we beat Inter and prove ourselves the best in Europe this season, I'll probably have to resign as you can't improve on that," he adds with a chuckle.

The task of slaying a friend when the stakes are so high may not delight either Van Gaal or Mourinho next weekend, but these serial winners will dump their admiration for each other in the Bernabeu car park. A friendly war this may be, but war all the same.


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