European Champion’s League Soccer: Will a Mourinho Team Best Barcelona?

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Alberto Di Lolli / AP

Real Madrid's coach Jose Mourinho reacts during a Spanish La Liga soccer match against Sporting Gijon at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid, Spain on April 14, 2012.

Jose Mourinho’s obsession with beating Barcelona may have reached Captain Ahab proportions since he took over as coach of Real Madrid two years ago, but — statistically at least — his chances of getting one over his Catalan nemeses are greatly improved in the European Champion’s League semi-finals that get underway on Tuesday. That’s because the humble Portuguese who dubs himself “The Special One” has not one, but two teams in the final four. Real Madrid face Bayern Munich in Germany in the first leg of their semi-final on Tuesday, and then, on Wednesday, his other team, Chelsea, host Barcelona in London.

What’s that you say? Mourinho left Chelsea almost five years ago? Of course he did. And since then, the club’s impatient Russian oligarch owner Roman Abramovic has burnt many millions of dollars hiring five different coaches, last month handing the job on a caretaker basis to the incumbent, former Chelsea player and assistant coach Roberto Di Matteo. Curiously enough, though, as Sunday’s 5-1 rout of Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley demonstrated, Chelsea is still utterly dependent on the team built by Mourinho. And it’s an open secret that it is those senior players, rather than Di Matteo — much less his hapless predecessor, Andre Villas Boas — who run the team.

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Of the Chelsea side that kicked off Sunday’s game at Wembley, ‘keeper Peter Cech, defenders Ashley Cole and John Terry, midfielders Frank Lampard and Jon Obi Mikel (as well as substitute Florent Malouda), and strikers Didier Drogba and Solomon Kalou were all Mourinho men, either bought to the club by the Special One or molded into the players they are today by his mental massaging.

(Example: Frank Lampard recalls in his autobiography coming out of a shower in the Chelsea dressing room soon after Mourinho’s appointment, to find the coach in his private space. “Alright, boss?” a non-plussed Lampard asks. Mourinho proceeds to tell him that he’s the best player in the world, but that nobody knows it, and that Mourinho will help him demonstrate that fact. Yes, nobody said footballers were the most sophisticated thinkers, but Lampard — and Terry, Cole etc — under Mourinho all played with a swagger and confidence that gave them an edge over opponents, and an unrivaled sense of entitlement when intimidating referees. For the record, the idea that Frank Lampard is the best player in the world would be laughable to anyone but Frank Lampard. But Mourinho’s handiwork is also evidenced in the fact that John Terry seriously expects to become Chelsea coach when he hangs up his boots. Uh… Never mind.)

Still, Mourinho’s men have arguably salvaged something from Chelsea’s season after it had gone pear-shaped under another Portuguese wunderkind, Villas-Boas (henceforth referred to as AVB), who was hired as coach at massive expense at the start of this season, but was fired last month having lost control of the dressing room, and failed to keep Chelsea in line to qualify for next season’s Champion’s League.

Having helped oust AVB and gotten Di Matteo into the job, the Mourinho men then led an improbable reversal of a 3-1 away defeat to Napoli to best the Italians 4-1 at home to make the semi-finals of the Champion’s League — the one trophy Oligarch Abramovich’s millions have failed to buy. And on Sunday, their thrashing of Spurs served up another reminder of their centrality to Chelsea’s current prospects, with defender David Luiz, midfield dynamo Ramires and playmaker Juan Mata being the only Villas-Boas players making a significant contribution.

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But the reason AVB, a young, progressive rising star, had been brought in, was to dismantle the aging Mourinho team and build a new titan capable of dominating the game for years to come. In a break with the norms of an English football culture that often mimics a factory floor by establishing a pecking order based on years-on-the-job — and in which the coach is known as the “gaffer”, a working class slang term for foreman — Villas-Boas had never been a professional player. He got his start in the game as a 16-year-old from a wealthy family who happened to live in the same apartment building as Bobby Robson during the legendary English coach’s spell in charge of Portuguese club FC Porto, and so impressed Robson in a conversation about tactics during a chance encounter in an elevator that the Englishman hired him to analyze the tactics of forthcoming opponents.

While he may be a brilliant thinker about the game and have won everything after taking charge of Porto, sending Andre Villas Boas into a Chelsea dressing room notoriously ruled by its senior players, their egos swelled to monstrous proportions by Mourinho, was always a cruel joke. (Mourinho, of course, had a very brief and undistinguished career as a player, and had gotten his own start by serving as Robson’s translator, but he was able to compensate by his abilities as a hypnotist.) Indeed, Villas-Boas had actually served in the same opposition-research capacity to Mourinho at Chelsea as he had done for Robson. The idea that the likes of Terry and Lampard were going to accept that Mourinho’s erstwhile bright-eyed young gopher was now their bright-eyed young gaffer was always going to be a long-shot. AVB knew this — he even complained that some of the squad’s key players were going over his head, not only to the Oligarch Abramovich but also texting with Mourinho — but his purpose was to rebuild Chelsea. After all, Drogba is 34, and Lampard will be too in a couple of months, Terry is 31 as are Cole and Malouda, while another key Mourinho man, Michael Essien is 29 but repeatedly afflicted by long-term injuries.

The Mourinho spine of Chelsea FC, now aging and slower, had become a hindrance to the club’s long-term prospects. AVB made clear he would need time to rebuild, and his habit of leaving Lampard on the substitutes’ bench was a declaration of his intent to build a faster, more mobile midfield unit. The “best player in the world” was obviously not impressed, nor were his mates among the senior players, and AVB’s situation gradually became untenable — as much as he nodded his head when told the club needed long-term rebuilding, Abramovich, who made his billions in the dizzying world of instant capitalism after the collapse of the Soviet system rather than through patiently constructing corporations, still expected instant success.

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And that meant ousting AVB, and relying on Mourinho’s men to fight for the FA Cup, the Champion’s League, and fourth place in the Premiership which would qualify them for next season’s Champion’s League. (They’re currently sixth.) The FA Cup, English football’s grand consolation prize these days, looks doable: They face a troubled Liverpool in the final in a game likely to be a tasty one given the history of needle between the two sides that began in the Mourinho era. Beating Barcelona, however, may be a bridge too far — even in their prime, the Mourinho spine of Chelsea found Barca something of a bogey team. And while Barca have gotten better, Chelsea have gotten worse, as age has taken its toll. It’s hard to imagine Drogba (even in the terrifying form of what may be his valedictory season), Lampard, Terry and Cole getting the better of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas — indeed, it’s hard to imagine them winning all that much of the ball from a team that rarely turns over possession, and when it does, has an astonishingly high rate of winning it back within seconds.  Sadly, even the man who once convinced Drogba, Lampard and Terry they were the best in the world has written off their chances. Mourinho is expecting to see Barcelona in the final.

The question is, will his Madrid be there to face them? For Real, Bayern Munich is the adversary most despised after Barcelona.

The clubs have a rich history of tasty, dramatic clashes in European competition, and the Germans loathe Mourinho, who club icon Franz Beckenbauer has branded “rude and loutish.” Mourinho would smirk at that. After all, he beat Bayern in the Champion’s League final two years ago while still in charge at Inter Milan. And while he’d never admit it, he has to fancy his chances of dumping them out of the tournament again.

While Real struggles to the point of despair to beat Barca in head-to-head clashes, the club is comfortably ahead of their Catalan rivals in the league table, and on track to win the title. Mourinho has combined Real’s “galactico” tradition of signing superstars — Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo — with building a team of quality and balance capable of playing its opponents off the park. Its midfield anchors Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira provided the possession that frees Ronaldo, the sublime Mesut Ozil and winger Angel di Maria to wreak havoc behind striker Karim Benzema. Then again, Bayern will be looking to the highly rated Bastian Schweinsteiger to play the same provider role to supply their own attacking midfield trident — Dutch winger and former Mourinho man Arjen Robben, French wide man Franck Ribery and the rising star of German football, Toni Kroos. Madrid enter the tie as favorites, but not by much.

The semifinals are played over two legs, one home, one away. But the wild card in the Champion’s League is that in the event of an aggregate tie, away goals count double. So if a team wins 3-1 at home but loses 2-0 on the away leg, it goes out.

The history of enmities between the clubs, and the last-chance sense with which the Chelsea men will approach the game, promise a tasty series that will serve up some quality football and plenty of drama. (Oh, and “tasty” in English football parlance means aggressive.)

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