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Champions League final sets stage for World Cup

All 32 World Cup coaches will no doubt be watching and learning as Inter Milan takes on Bayern Munich on Saturday.

Actually it has been said or at least hinted at, most frequently by Mourinho. The coach, whose mystique is bolstered by matinee-idol looks, has never been content to wait for the soccer establishment to sing his praises, preferring to sing them himself and leave the press to quote him. After winning the Champions with Porto, he jumped to Chelsea and, with no visible embarrassment, introduced himself to the British press by saying, “I think I’m a special one.” Since then, Mourinho has embraced that nickname and, arguably, earned it.

To get to this final, Inter first upset English champion Chelsea and then defending European champion Barcelona. Wesley Sneijder, the Dutch midfielder who has been Inter’s standout all season, noted after the Barcelona triumph that Mourinho always has a plan “to destroy the opponent.” Try waxing lyrical about that gladiatorial thrust.

But that is a fair description of the havoc Inter wreaked in Barcelona. After winning 3-1 at home Inter went to Spain for the rematch with a simple plan that is not always easy to execute. Inter collapsed its defense in front of the net, never panicked or lost its shape and withstood the ceaseless Barcelona onslaught.

Barcelona wound up controlling the ball for more than 80 percent of the game, but couldn’t find a way through the impenetrable mass. (When an Inter player was sent off for a bad tackle and the team was reduced to 10 men, the Italian side’s tactics were only confirmed.) Last year’s dazzlers first tried to dance their way through enemy lines, but were kept on the periphery. They wound up frustrated and eventually began a futile exercise in firing away from a distance.

There is no arguing with success, the aesthetic footnote being the last bastion for losers. Unlike most coaches who celebrate big victories with handshakes and discreet hugs along the sidelines, Mourinho charged onto the field in Barcelona and strutted center stage amid the victory dance. He is a special one in many ways, not all of them entirely flattering.

Van Gaal has thrown down the gauntlet, baiting his former aide by saying that he faced a greater challenge this week because “I coach my players to play attractive football and to win and [Mourinho] coaches only to win.” But “The Special One” is unlikely to bite because, in truth, both coaches prize victory over pleasing the fans let alone the sportswriters. After all, where do we think Mourinho learned to do whatever it takes?

All 32 World Cup coaches will, of course, be watching and learning. No doubt after Barcelona won Champions last year, each concluded that it was impossible to replicate that kind of offensive cohesion with the short-timers on their all-star squads. But if a conservative, defensive, destructive approach prevails this year, as seems inevitable, each will smile and say, “Now that’s something that maybe we can do.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the age of Jose Mourinho. He is 47, not 37.