….or just get you there? (Guest post by Ryan Hadley)
Welcome to the 80,354-seat Santiago Bernabeu in downtown Madrid for the 2009-2010 Champion’s League Final and our Champion’s League preview live from the home of Los Galácticos.
Spain’s best had desperately hoped to be here tonight, but they were unable to join us. In a tragicomic miscalculation intended to cement their return to the top of European football on their home pitch, instead Real Madrid provided the key attacking players contesting tonight’s final when they offloaded Arjen Robben to Bayern Munich and Wesley Sneijder to Inter Milan last summer. Meanwhile, $132 million man Cristiano Ronaldo is in Portugal, auditioning hair-stylists to accompany him to South Africa while mere $80 million mortal Kaka is just happy to be back home in a Brazil where players pass the ball after performing a series of 107 stepovers.
Barcelona’s quest to repeat as Champions ended when Jose Mourinho’s well-organized Inter side showed that incisive attacking can be more telling than having 93% of possession and completing 4,387 passes over the course of 180 minutes of football. A managerial Tyrone Slothrop, Jose Mourinho pre-visits the scene of his next conquest (rumored to be in charge of Real Madrid by Sunday, if you hadn’t already heard), as he seeks to prove his eternal greatness as the “Special One”. Along with the rest of us, Louis Van Gaal may soon be wishing he’d demoted Jose to water-carrier. If Inter wins on Saturday, we may never hear the end of it.
While Jose will never let anyone forget that he won both Europe’s club competitions in back-to-back years with Porto, TSG readers may need reminding that his Bayern counterpart has also won the European Cup. Van Gaal took highest honors at the helm of Ajax back in 1995. Mourinho worked as assistant to Van Gaal at Barcelona and will doubtless have something to prove (as if he ever doesn’t) in a trip to the finals which included overcoming his former employers Chelsea and his nemesis (and antithesis) Barcelona. Van Gaal would doubtless like to show the upstart translater a thing or two, especially after letting Lucio leave Bayern for Inter on the cheap, though Jose bought him in a sulk after Chelsea wouldn’t sell Ricardo “Blanky” Carvalho.
The German side is the Champion’s League’s joint-top scorer with Arsenal and Manchester United. They come into the match with no injuries to speak of, but have elegant french winger Franck Ribéry serving a Red Card suspension. They still garner plenty of attacking threat. In Arjen Robben and with pacy attacking fullback Phillip Lahm, the German club boasts the most potent right flank of any club in Europe. Turkey’s Hamit Altintop will likely slot into Ribéry’s spot on the left, giving Robben the full complement of 10 players to not pass to before throwing up his hands in frustration with them after his attempted 40-yard blast goes out for a throw-in.
With Müller in support, front-runner Olić will be looking for the goal that puts him level with Lionel Messi as the competition’s top scorer. Both players put in a lot of hard work in a side that defends from the front almost as well as their opponents. Bayern don’t have the strongest defensive record with Van Buyten and Demichelis both having their shaky moments. Badstuber rounds out the back four. Looking to win his second Champion’s League after doing it as Eto’o's Barca team-mate in 05-06, Bayern’s captain Mark Van Bommel will anchor midfield with the man whose name google dares not auto-translate, Bastien Schweinsteiger.
In contrast, Inter have the best defensive record of any club that made it to the quarterfinal stages, conceding 9 goals in 12 matches to Bordeaux’s 6 in 10. While Van Gaal’s is less inclined to make adjustments to his opponent, you can be sure that Inter’s players will be drilled in a number of tactical tweaks to deal with Bayern. After Sergio Busquet’s Hollywood turn in the semifinal second leg saw him red carded, the suspension of Thiago Motta leaves Mourinho with a selection problem at the base of midfield.
There’s a lot of talk about Mourinho’s tactical adjustment but the reality is that the shape of his 6 defensive players is generally consistent. They form the base for tweaks to the positioning of his 4 attacking players, usually deployed to try and negate the threat of the opposition’s attacking fullbacks. He could look to pair Christian Chievu with Cambiasso as an option that allows him to keep the same shape. Otherwise he may be forced to alter the set-up that brought the side to this point by bringing in Muntari or Stanković.
Mourinho’s first choice back four should be available with Lucio set to return from a calf injury. The Brazil captain has formed an impressive partnership with Walter Samuel at the center of Inter’s defense. Inter’s engine, Maicon and the ageless Argentinian Javier Zanetti round out this quartet of South Americans.
No questions surrounding Diego Milito who will put in a shift leading the line. Mourinho will have decide how best to deploy Pandev and Eto’o. With two excellent defensive shifts against Barca, Eto’o showed Guardiola got the short straw in the Ibrahimovic transfer. In addition, Mourinho’s took an unwanted Sneijder off Real Madrid and put him in a number 10 role that’s largely endangered around Europe allowing him to become Europe’s best player this season isn’t a tricky little 4 foot tall garden gnome named Messi. Don’t expect to see a single Italian Inter’s starting 11.
5 Key Battles to Watch:
How well do Cambiasso and Zanetti deal with Robben cutting in from the left?
Does Mourinho’s left wing player – Pandev or possibly Eto’o – successfully pin back Lahm and keep him from supporting Robben in the attack?
Are Schweinsteiger and Van Bommel able to get close enough to Sneijder to stifle his creative force?
Do Lucio and Samuel do the same job they did on Didier Drogba or will the deeper positioning of Müller and Olić pull them out of shape?
Will Bayern be able to keep Inter’s attack narrow by curtailing the advances Inter’s Brazilian engine, Maicon?
Rupert has put the game on Fox, not Fox Soccer Channel, in glorious HD for all. Invite a friend over for a free beer around 2.30 PM EDT on Saturday. Just don’t miss it.