Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho prepare to lock horns once more in the most anticipated tie of the Champions League. Holders Manchester United travel to the San Siro on Tuesday where they will be confronted by a stubborn Inter side looking to gain an advantage for the return leg at Old Trafford two weeks later. Usually, when these two great adversaries go head to head, we can normally expect fireworks on and off the pitch.
Previous clashes between arguably the two greatest managers of the modern game have produced some fascinating games and of course, an inevitable war of words in the pre-match build up. Psychological warfare spearheaded by Coaches is part and parcel of the game, but surprisingly this time round the two master Tacticians have been nothing but full of praise for each other. The former Chelsea boss acknowledged United is the best team in the world and speaking on MUTV declared: “I always had big, big, big respect (for United). That’s why I remember my time with Porto here as one of the most important for me, because we beat such an amazing club – and that’s why I’m so excited to play with Inter against Man United.” He said of the tie, “They will be two special matches.” Ferguson is also excited about the meeting and paid mutual respect to his old foe, saying: “It will be interesting to come up against Jose again. He is a good character and we have always got on well.”
The pre-match banter then has been uncharacteristic of sharp-tongued Coaches with reputations for being fiercely outspoken and loving nothing more than a psychological wrangle. When the Special One was plying his trade in the English Premier League, he attacked United on more than one occasion, suggesting the Old Trafford outfit have an inexhaustible persuasion over referees and denouncing them as “cheats.” Sir Alex hit back at this jibe by telling the Portuguese Tactician to “button his lip,” suggesting he should be disciplined for making unfounded arguments. Ahead of this meeting however, their pre-match comments about each other have been uninterestingly subdued.
In ten previous meetings Mourinho has come out on top on six occasions whilst the wily Scotsman’s only success was a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford in November 2005. The enigmatic Inter Coach is under no illusions what is needed from his team if he is to overcome his old adversary for a lucky seventh time: “The first game is at home, and I think that we have to travel to Manchester with an advantage.” Amongst Mourinho’s victories are the 2007 FA Cup final and the very first meeting between the pair when he was in charge at Porto.
It was at this same stage in the competition that Mourinho’s Portuguese underdogs knocked United out of the competition on their way to lifting the trophy in 2004. Francisco Costinha’s last gasp winner prompted the Special One to elatedly bolt down the touchline in celebration of a 3-2 aggregate win. The gesture didn’t endear him to the Old Trafford faithful, nor indeed their headstrong Coach who would suffer defeat at the hands of the Chelsea boss to miss out on the Premier League title for the following two seasons. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but does not seem to have had long lasting effects.
Ferguson must feel this time round he will have his revenge and overcome the Serie A leaders. Whilst Inter have dominated the Italian league for what is likely to become a fourth successive title, their impact in European competition has been disappointing. United on the other hand go into the game on the back of a 10 match unbeaten run in all competitions and have not conceded a goal in the league for an astonishing 14 matches. If they keep Inter at bay in the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, only a fool would back against them in the return leg at Old Trafford.
Despite United’s impressive form, the Nerazzurri Coach has confidence in his team’s ability to reach the quarter-finals: “We know Man United is a special team with special players. You look at how solid they are in defence and how dangerous they are in attack. You look to the dug-out and you see the talent is there; but Inter is a clever team, an intelligent team with a lot of experience. We have some talent and we know how to play the game.”
The first leg in the San Siro may well be as subdued as the respective Tacticians pre-match verbals, but should there be a contentious decision or incident that gives rise for a sharp-tongued comment, the second leg will be a much more fiery episode.