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May 22, 2010

Tactical triumph for Mourinho

It wasn't Camp Nou. It wasn't the second leg of a tie you are leading 3-1, but Inter again enjoyed far less possession than their opponents (20 minutes and 39 seconds to 40 minutes and 12 seconds), and ended up having an even better game than the semi-final second leg against Barcelona.

• Jolly: No Hollwyood ending for Bayern
• Bayern 0-2 Inter Milan
• Jose: "My work here is done"
• Van Gaal: Inter deserved win
• Milito revels in victory
• Champions League final pics

One reason, of course, is that Bayern are not as creative with the ball at their feet and nimble without it as the Catalans are, but one constant in both matches was Inter's willingness to go against man's basic instinct - everyone wants to kick a ball, not run into imaginary positions where it may go - and cause things to happen, wait for them to develop and then react.

Catenaccio, the bolted door of the 1960s and '70s, used to be the operative word, but its negative tone would be too much on this occasion. The passing of time has elevated coaching to something more than rolling footballs across the pitch and watch as 22 men chase them. This in turn has meant coaches and managers have acquired a higher profile than ever before, so even considering that it's still the players who go out there and make things happen, praise must indeed be given to those who set things up.

It was, indeed, as much Jose Mourinho's triumph as Diego Milito's, whose sensational season can now continue with the World Cup.

The purest of the Argentinian's gifts, as shown recently in the Coppa Italia final, is a good first touch, close control while keeping his body between the ball and the defender and getting a shot in, and it was there for all to see on 35 minutes.

It is funny how such a tactically tense game should be broken open by something resembling route one football, though. Taking a leaf out of long-ball guru Charles Hughes' tome, Julio Cesar's clearance was helped on by Milito with his head and the ball fell perfectly for Wesley Sneijder, who killed its momentum with the sort of snake-bite reflexes great players have and in one motion slotted it through for Milito to do his job.

Milito even hesitated for a fraction of a second before shooting, a la Michael Thomas circa 1989, and this may have caused Inter's heart to flutter for a moment before the net was shaken by the ball. Someone in the Italian media mentioned this as a goal "on the break", but it was hardly so, as you can rarely expect a defence to be readier and more compact than when the ball is at the opposing goalkeeper's feet.

Once ahead, Inter, who had shown some brilliant one-touch football very early on, were quite happy to play keep-the-shape (4-2-1-3, but it was constantly changing to 4-1-2-3, 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 depending on the position of Bastian Schweinsteger and Thomas Muller), perhaps whispering "come on, make my day" any time a Bayern player had the ball.

Not that everything went the Italians' way. Lucio and Samuel had to make timely interceptions early on, and in one of the more predictable developments in the game, Cristian Chivu was having trouble against Arjen Robben on Inter's left. Some pre-game talk had focused on whom Inter should deploy on that side. Chivu is the younger, perhaps more talented player, but he's not a great turn-and-run defender, which leaves him vulnerable to wingers who can change direction and accelerate.

Zanetti, the only other candidate considering Davide Santon's long-term injury, is slower but can somehow keep his body closer to his opponent and channel their moves into less dangerous positions. Mourinho went for Chivu, believing he still had more to gain than by moving Zanetti outside and inserting Dejan Stankovic as a holding midfielder.

But the move had its negative effects, and Chivu's yellow card after half an hour might have put him in a dangerous situation. That's when Goran Pandev began tracking back even deeper than before and Esteban Cambiasso, who played on the left of the withdrawn midfield duo, often shifted to Chivu's side.

Inter somehow managed to save the day there, and the fact Robben saw a lot of the ball but whirred and whizzed and ultimately produced little, might have reminded some of that movie scene where the bad guy shows off move after move including, in this case, a curled shot that Julio Cesar did very well to turn away, until Indiana Jones sends him to showboat heaven with a single, direct shot.

On the other side, Samuel Eto'o rarely crossed midfield unless Inter attacked in numbers, and it was Sneijder - who also moved to the left in the early stages, to help keep Philipp Lahm back - supporting Milito more than anyone else, as the two chances the Argentinian created for his team-mate proved.

Hamit Altintop's presence on that side, where Schweinsteiger also threatened to run in the inside channel, also meant Maicon had to cover more than push forward, and it wasn't until late in the game that he produced one of his typical runs.

With Bayern replacing Altintop with Miroslav Klose, who joined Ivica Olic up front with Muller moving to the left, Bayern showed more intent, but it was on the break, just as by design, that Inter scored the second. And the way Milito undressed poor Danny Van Buyten one-on-one you'd have thought the Belgian defender was a streaker trying to grab a moment's celebrity.

The final ten minutes went by with barely a moment of danger for Inter, and the Italians' end of the ground could be heard, almost quivering with increasing anticipation as the final whistle approached.

As everyone will know by now, the occasion was momentous and among the thousands of stories one could save from the day there is the tale of Sergio Scariolo, the Italian basketball guru who coached Spain to European glory last year and whose day job has him coaching Russian side Khimki.

He travelled across the continent to be at the Berbabeu before catching a flight back to Moscow, where he has a play-off game on Sunday, right after the final whistle. This of course does not mean Scariolo is more of a fan than those who could not afford the trip and suffered in front of the TV or in bars, but gives an idea of how historic the occasion was perceived to be by Inter supporters, who will now turn their attention to whether Mourinho goes or stays.

Inter's anthem, played to ear-splitting effect right after Javier Zanetti lifted the Cup, centres around the words "Pazza Inter" ('Crazy Inter'), dating back from a time when nothing ever seemed to go right for them. Perhaps it's time to change the lyrics: is there anything more rational, more coldly and coolly practiced than this Mourinho-ed version of the Nerazzurri?

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