Inter v Bayern: Champions League final preview
This is what the Champions League is all about: England’s best side against Spain’s best side in last season’s final in Rome, Italy’s best side against Germany’s best side this season in Madrid. This is an intriguing match-up between two sides who have underachieved in Europe in recent years, and between two of the greatest tacticians in modern times.
The Italy v Germany clash is emphasized when you consider the situation regarding both countries’ UEFA coefficients (which determines the number of European places each national league is allocated) where Germany currently leads Italy by 0.155 points.
The basic result of that is that Serie A needs Inter to beat Bayern if it is to regain third place, and therefore retain its four Champions League places for 20011/12. This might seem a relatively tenuous, distant problem, but losing a fourth spot would be a huge embarrassment for Italy, and therefore we have an unlikely situation where Italy is depending on Jose Mourinho, a man who has become so unpopular across the country in recent months.
As well as being a playoff for that Champions League spot, this is also a playoff for the treble. Both completed the domestic league and cup double within the past fortnight, and this game means one club will have the most successful season in their history, whilst the other will be left deflated at the end of an otherwise superb season.
The main interest on the pitch, of course, is the match-up between Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, the two Dutch players discarded by Real Madrid last summer. The two No 10s have been the key player for their respective new clubs, and the irony of them contesting the final at the Santiago Bernabeu is plain to see, especially when Real’s monumental spending spree last summer saw them depart – for the fifth season in a row – at the second round stage.
It is a great contest too, for Lucio – who left Bayern for Inter last summer, and for Samuel Eto’o, who could become both the first player to score three times in the Champions League final (he is level with Raul on two) and the first player to win back-to-back trebles with two different clubs.
This game is literally the master versus the student: Jose Mourinho worked for two years as Louis van Gaal’s assistant at Barcelona, and together they won the league title both seasons. Never before have they faced one another.
The two have further similarities. Van Gaal’s Champions League win with Ajax in 1995 was probably the 1990s equivalent of Mourinho’s success with Porto in 2004, probably the most impressive European Cup wins of those respective decades. And both managers have won league titles in three separate countries – van Gaal in Holland (Ajax and AZ), Spain (Barcelona) and now Germany (Bayern); Mourinho in Portugal (Porto), England (Chelsea) and Italy (Inter). Few managers taste instant success in such a wide range of countries – in this final, it’s more of a case of the special two, rather than the special one.
Despite them working together at Barcelona, they have become renowned for playing different brands of football – van Gaal is often seen as having continued the attacking brand of Dutch football epitomised by Total Football, Mourinho is painted as being a defensive, negative manager whose teams win without much style. That might be slightly unfair on Mourinho, but the perceived differences in style only add to the excitement of this final.
Although Mourinho started the season playing a 4-3-1-2, he has since pretty much permanently switched to a 4-2-3-1 / 4-2-1-3 system. The main surprise in the second half of Inter season is how few surprises there have been. Mourinho has a clearly-preferred system and an easily-identifiable first XI when all are available, especially given the troubles this season of two players who should have broken through permanently into the first team, Davide Santon and Mario Balotelli.
The main dilemma is who to replace the suspended Thiago Motta with, in a crucial role for Inter (more on that later). There are three options for Mourinho here. Playing Dejan Stankovic there would be a very attacking move, whilst Sulley Muntari would provide more of a battling quality. The most likely replacement, however, is Cristian Chivu, although this may mean that he starts at left-back, with Javier Zanetti moving forward into midfield, as he did, for example, against Fiorentina.
Elsewhere, the line-up is fairly predictable – there has been speculation that Balotelli could replace Pandev, but this looks unlikely given the defensive job Inter’s left-winger will have to do against Philip Lahm.
Like Inter, Bayern’s starting XI in the second half of the season has been fairly predictable and they have stuck to a 4-4-2 / 4-2-3-1 shape. The spanner in the works is Franck Ribery’s suspension – if van Gaal is keen to keep the same playing system, with inverted wingers, then Hamit Altintop will start, which seems the likely scenario according to the German press. There would be value, though, in fielding Danijel Pranjic there, a more defensive option, considering the forward surges of Maicon will have to be looked after.
Elsewhere the line-up should be the same as they have fielded throughout the season, with Ivica Olic and Thomas Muller upfront.
Inter have tended to sit back and soak up pressure in their Champions League knockout run, but given the nature of Bayern’s slightly suspect backline, attack might be the name of the game. Fielding a forward four in a 4-2-3-1 is essentially quite a defensive shape from Mourinho, as its main aim is to contain the opposition full-backs – but the attacking benefit of fielding four attacking players like this is clear, and means Inter can really go for it from the off.
The Chivu/Zanetti dilemma is an interesting one, because Inter’s left-back will have the most important defensive job up against Arjen Robben, whilst their central midfield partner for Cambisso might be the freest player on the pitch and see a lot of the ball. Zanetti’s superior passing ability means he will probably get the nod in midfield, with Chivu sticking solidly to Robben on the flank, although the two could switch, especially if the man who starts at left-back picks up a booking.
Wesley Sneijder position will also be interesting, as he may come into direct confrontation with his compatriot Mark van Bommel. If van Bommel is drawn up into the pitch to confront Inter’s midfielders, though, Sneijder may find himself with space, and his tendency to drift to the left makes it difficult for the centre-backs to pick up.
Bayern are set up quite well to face Inter’s defence. Walter Samuel and Lucio have coped very well with tall forwards like Didier Drogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but in Serie A they have sometimes struggled against smaller, pacier forwards. The work rate of Olic and Muller will cause them problems, and Muller will also have a defensive job to do on Esteban Cambiasso when Bayern lose the ball.
Bayern will struggle to get their full-backs forward if Inter play 4-2-3-1, and they may have a slight numerical disadvantage in midfield too. They have depended on Robben throughout the season, and may well do more than ever in this game tonight.
Inter’s three central midfielders (if you include Sneijder) should, in theory, outnumber Byaern’s two. Therefore, expect Thomas Muller to drop back to ease the pressure on Schweinsteiger and van Bommel, and perhaps Martin Demichelis might step up into midfield when Bayern have the ball, as he did so well against Manchester United.
Moves to watch out for:
Wesley Sneijder plays slightly behind Inter’s front three, and slightly to the left of the pitch. When the ball is on the right-hand side, Inter’s three forwards move towards the ball, often leaving Sneijder unmarked on the edge of the area, or at the far post, such as against Barca.
Bayern also use their forwards to make space for their No 10. Muller and Olic move towards the far post, increasing the distance between left centre-back, and left-back, allowing Robben to cut in. Alternatively, one of the strikers makes a run towards Robben’s wing, dragging that defender out of position, and creating space for Robben in the centre of the pitch. This video shows how much he likes to cut inside:
The game could be won by these two producing a moment of individual genius – otherwise, it will be won in the centre of midfield. It should be a tight match, but Inter start as favourites.
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Bayern:Inter v Bayern: Champions League final preview