Five storylines to note about the Inter vs. Bayern matchup
Both Van Gaal and Mourinho share the same fundamental coaching philosophy
Both Inter and Bayern are in a position to achieve the coveted and rare "treble"
Both teams rely on high-profile Dutch stars who were disgarded by Real Madrid
At the start of this season's Champions League campaign, very few observers would have predicted that the two teams left standing on the eve of the final would be Inter Milan and Bayern Munich. And yet, after disposing of more fancied opposition in the semifinals, both teams are poised to make history in a final that has more than its fair share of subplots. Here's five things to note about the final:
1. The coaching matchup between Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.
Much has been made of the master versus pupil dynamic between the two managers. When Bayern's Van Gaal managed Barcelona between 1997-2000, Mourinho was one of his key assistant coaches. However, it's worth noting that Van Gaal was actually not the man who brought Mourinho to Barcelona (that would be Sir Bobby Robson). Furthermore, while both share the same basic 4-3-3 philosophy of celebrated Dutch tactician Rinus Michels, their implementation and adaptation of his theories differ sharply. For Mourinho, he favors a more pragmatic approach with an emphasis on maintaining defensive shape. Van Gaal is more the romantic, with a typical Dutch adherence to playing with stylish attacking intent. Bayern winger Arjen Robben, who also played for Mourinho at Chelsea, defined the contrast best when he told reporters, "[Mourinho] puts out a winning team, it doesn't matter if it's done with nice football or not. The philosophy at Bayern is [Louis van Gaal] wants to win games by playing nice football." There's also more than simple master vs. pupil bragging rights at stake -- both are in position to become only the third manager ever to win to the Champions League title with more than one team (Van Gaal won previously in 1995 with Ajax and Mourinho in '2004 with Porto) joining Ottmar Hitzfeld and Ernst Happel in a select group.
2. A win for either team ensures the coveted "treble." In club soccer, the greatest achievement possible is to land the treble -- generally considered as a club winning its top-tier domestic league, its major domestic cup competition and its continental championship within the same season. If one disregards teams from lower tier leagues such as the Thai Farmers Bank of Thailand (who won an Asian treble in 1995), the list of teams in top-tier leagues that have performed the feat is rare indeed. Since 1973, only three teams (PSV in 1988, Manchester United in 1999 and Barcelona in 2009) have managed it and both Inter and Bayern have a chance to become the first team from their nations to pull it off.
3. A chance for some discarded stars to have the last laugh. The high irony of course is that when Real Madrid decided to undergo its $300 million facelift last summer, the Real hierarchy saw fit to unceremoniously dump Dutch stars Robben and Wesley Sneijder. Yet while Real floundered yet again in the Champions League, both Robben and Sneijder have been the fulcrums and driving force behind Bayern and Inter respectively reaching the final. Both players influence the game in different ways and in different areas of the field -- Robben terrorizes the right flank while often cutting inside on his left foot to shoot as a modern day inside-out winger, while Sneijder is the classic playmaker, drifting around the offensive third and operating in the hole -- but it's likely that whoever has the star outing on the day, will guide his team to the title. In similar fashion, Inter's Samuel Eto'o must feel equally aggrieved. A prolific scorer during his time at Barcelona, he was also the scorer of the winning goal in each of Barcelona's Champions League triumphs and yet still considered expendable in the transfer market last summer. It would surprise no one if Eto'o were to pop up with yet another winning goal on the biggest occasion.
4. Van Gaal dramatically reshaped Bayern's team culture. That Inter is in this position is not nearly as much of a surprise as Bayern. Inter, after all, was already four-time consecutive Italian champion entering the season before adding a fifth title. Mourinho's masterful transfer haul last summer of Sneijder, Eto'o and Diego Milito reinforced his squad further. On the other hand, Bayern was a total mess last season under former manager Juergen Klinsmann, looking like an also-ran in the Bundesliga, hindered by dysfunctional team unity and out of its depth in Europe, suffering an embarrassing elimination in the Champions League at the hands of Barcelona. A testament then to the masterful coaching job done by Van Gaal -- who earlier this week said that it took Bayern players six months to fully understand his tactical concepts -- to transform Bayern.
5. Who's favored? There's no doubt that Inter is the stronger team on paper and infused with the kind of self-belief and mental strength that Mourinho typically gives his charges. Bayern on the other hand is hindered by the red-card suspension of star winger Franck Ribery, a generally misfiring set of strikers and unlike Inter, has been less than convincing in its progression to the final. Only an outrageously offside goal allowed the Bavarians to defeat Fiorentina, before somehow disposing of Manchester United despite being vastly outplayed for some 150 of the 180 minutes over two legs. Clearly then the form book suggests Inter emerging as the comfortable victor, and yet it's impossible to rule out a Bayern side that has been riding its luck to the fullest, while also benefiting from the performances of a genuine matchwinner in Robben, who's in the form of his life.
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