Madrid relieved to be hosting meeting of the ones that got away

The coaches are sparring, Bayern’s Croatian striker, Ivica Olic stands accused of being a fancy dan Steve Claridge – a pub footballer who has miraculously scored seven goals in Europe this season – both finalists are on the brink of a historic treble and although Real Madrid don’t feature in the final, they are trying to steal the limelight with some trademark wheeling and dealing. Yup, it can only be the UEFA Champions League final. 

Chastened, terrified and ecstatic

The Champions League final will be a chastening experience for Real Madrid executives especially if, as is widely expected, the outcome is decided by Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, both former Los Blancos.

There could be five ex-Real stars on the pitch on Saturday night – Inter’s Samuel Eto’o, Walter Samuel and Esteban Cambiasso have all also been discarded by Real – but, as the legendary Alfredo di Stefano is honest enough to admit in the official matchday programme, the worst case scenario for “all of those of Madridismo” has been averted.

After Real were knocked out by Lyon, Di Stefano was terrified by the thought that Barcelona would become the first team to retain the Champions League in Real’s own stadium. As the delightful Sid Lowe has noted, Di Stefano’s relief was shared – and in some cases surpassed – by Madrid fans, one of whom said Barcelona’s exit was “the happiest day of my life, well, after the birth of my kids”.

The Madrilenos will be even more ecstatic, for a while, if they can entrap the genius who masterminded this beautiful defeat. 

Di Stefano certainly didn't revel in Barca's defeat to Inter...

Mourinho, Napoleon and supernovas

In 2004, Jose Mourinho won the Champions League with Porto in his last game as coach. He may well, if Gazzetta dello Sport is any guide, pull the same stunt this weekend, winning the tournament with Inter and heading to Real Madrid to occupy the hottest hot seat in football, a veritable supernova of dugouts.  

Much as I admire the chosen one (as Mourinho was known in Portugal before, with a flourish reminiscent of Napoleon – who took the emperor’s crown and stuck it on his own head – he rebranded himself “the Special One”), I wonder if all this speculation hasn’t subtly tilted the odds in Bayern’s favour. 

True, the Porto players probably knew Mourinho was leaving in 2004 but after Ludovic Giuly limped off, that final was more coronation than contest. He also faced a vastly less experienced coach, Didier Deschamps.

Even for a squad as gifted as Inter’s, Bayern – and Louis Van Gaal – are a stiffer sterner test, offering much less margin for error. Sneijder (who has described Mourinho as almost like a father) and Eto’o, who owe their comebacks to the coach’s guidance, wouldn’t be human if they weren’t distracted by unsettling thoughts of their futures without their mentor.  

And for the team, there is a world of difference between approaching the final as if, like Ajax in 1971, you expect this to be the first act of a golden age and fearing that, shorn of your inspirational leader, this might be your only hope of winning this coveted prize. 

In the latest Champions – available at all good newsagents and a few dodgy ones – Mourinho reveals some of the methods he has used to lead Inter to this final. One of his greatest gifts is to communicate his certainty and confidence to players. They don’t – unlike Don Revie’s England stars in the 1970s – drown in dossiers because he also gives them clear, succinct messages. Against Chelsea, Mourinho told his squad: if we don’t concede a goal from set-pieces, we’ll win. Inter didn’t and he was proved right. 

Who's that on the cover...?

It’s possible that ‘Mou’ – as he’s known in the text world – can, through force of personality, keep his squad focused on the trophy Inter have waited 45 years to win. But any sports psychologist would insist that a team would prefer to prepare for such a career-defining fixture without wondering about the coach’s future. 

Lions, ash and false teeth

Volcanic ash permitting, I will soon be in Madrid to watch the most eagerly anticipated Champions League final since… last year’s. In truth, 2009 was never that competitive after Eto’o put Barcelona ahead.  

The team who scores first has won 12 out of 17 Champions League finals. (To be fair, two of those winners – Juventus in 1996 and Manchester United in 2008 – prevailed in the shootout.) Manchester United (in 1999), Bayern (2001), Liverpool (2005) and Barcelona (2006) are the only sides to come from behind and lift the trophy in the Champions League era. Twelve Champions League finals have been won by a single goal or in a shoot-out.

So the outcome may be tight, but whoever wins, they are unlikely to react quite as Ronnie Simpson and Bobby Lennox did in 1967. These two Lisbon Lions, heroes of Celtic’s unexpected victory over Inter, had but one thought when the final whistle blew: sprint to the goal and retrieve their false teeth before their jubilant fans claimed them as souvenirs. More to read...

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