Sport polarises opinion to the same ferocious extent as political and ethical issues. Admittedly sporting dialectics could concern whether Mark Fish was the greatest South African to play in the Premier League, (we all know it was Shaun Bartlett, right?), but to the initiated they are as important as health care reform.
Certain figures from the world of football have the knack of being adored by some and despised by many, with the cliche “you hate him unless he plays for you” attached to their name as though a suffix. I remember speaking to an ardent Liverpool fan on the day that his club signed Craig Bellamy. His vitriolic hatred of the diminutive Welshman was as such that he held him in the regard usually reserved for war criminals. As I approached, a smug grin on my face, ready to hear him bemoan how his beloved team could sign such a prize prick he turned to me and, with a completely straight face, said: “I’ve always thought he was a top player really”.
There are not many people in sport who excite such sentiments in the way that Jose Mourinho does. The former Porto and Chelsea manager who now holds the top job at Internazionale is either lauded as a roguish continental scallywag or slated as a swaggering example of bloated hubris. In his first press conference after becoming Chelsea manager the newly anointed messiah of European management pronounced that he was “a special one” and proceeded to prove that he had the goods to back such a claim up. Initially he was the darling of the press possibly, I suspect, due to the stark contrast between his penchant for witty soundbites and the monotone drawl of Arsene Wenger or Sir Alex Ferguson. This relationship soon soured as Mourinho proved somewhat graceless in defeat and acerbic in his treatment of his counterparts.
His disgraceful attack on Wenger (he called the Arsenal boss a “voyeur” who “has his big telescope to look into the homes of other people and see what is happening”) became symptomatic of his increasingly erratic verbal attacks and sense of victimisation. Roman Ambramovich quickly tired of his inability to deliver the coveted Champions League trophy and “The Special One” left inevitably bound for one of the big jobs in Europe.
He returned to Stamford Bridge last night to show the West Londoners what they are missing. After a brilliantly cantankerous interview in the run up to the second leg of the Champions League tie Mourinho claimed that he should still be manager wryly remarking of Chelsea’s success since his departure: “They won…something. They won an FA cup”. He also went on to say, as he has done on numerous occasions during his time in Italy, that he would love a return to the Premiership.
For all his faults I would welcome him back with open arms. He displayed, last night, the clinical tactical acumen so lacking in our sometimes pedestrian league. No manager, even perhaps Ferguson, can accurately surmise the demands of an opposition and then set his team up to beat them accordingly. Even Wenger, hailed universally as a genius, has been found wanting implementing systems that leave his team worryingly open on big occasions, leading to them being comprehensively beaten by their two title rivals four times this season. The manner in which Jose engineered the Inter victory yesterday evening was masterful. Many would not have expected it, as both the reputation of Italian football and Mourinho is typically considered to be miserly.
The Inter boss realised that with Chelsea having an away goal, courtesy of Saloman Kalou’s strike at the San Siro, simply “parking the bus” to use a Mourinho term was not an option. Had Inter sat back and allowed Chelsea the impetus to attack for significant portions of the game they would have been beaten. Instead they set out to attack with an offensive triumvirate of Milito, Pandev and goalscorer Eto’o who never gave the Chelsea back four a seconds rest or the space needed to feed their midfield. Behind them Mourinho employed the Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder, arguably the best player on the pitch, to make sure that John Obi Mikel was more concerned with stopping him than winning the ball for Frank Lampard to distribute.
This move effectively stopped Chelsea from playing. Lampard, usually so effective in Europe, was anonymous and in turn the front two of Anelka and Drogba were left isolated. Sneijder flitted around with the ease of a man in top form probing the Chelsea defence with a series of near killer passes. It was Mourinho’s tactics that set him free.
And so Inter progress into the quarter finals with a special manager at the helm. Fans of Europe’s top clubs will point to their aging side, their supposedly one-dimensional style of play and their lack of depth but privately no one will want to draw them. In just the same way they may say that Mourinho is arrogant, over rated and has a bad attitude; but almost all of them would have him as their side’s manager.