Saturday, 22 May 2010

Inter conquer Europe... can Milito conquer the world?

It’s over. Nine months of gestation, indigestion and gesturing. The long-running European season bore its final fruit with Inter Milan carving out an emphatic 2-0 win over Bayern Munich in the first ever Saturday night Champions League showdown. JoseMourinho, you truly are the Special One. Another continental triumph against the odds.

Now, we should concentrate on the World Cup. Not a bad thing given the performance of a certain Diego Milito last night. We may have a new global star in the making.

But before we go, there are many sub-plots to unravel. There they were in Madrid, where Barcelona longed to conquer. A crowd of 75,500 at the Bernebeu to see two coaches who worked together under the late, great Sir Bobby Robson at the CampNou.

Louis van Gaal, the Dutchman who went on to coach Barca, lined up against close friend Jose Mourinho, the former interpreter who crushed the Catalan dream with a stonewall semi-final display – and is reported to be headed to Real Madrid next season.

Aarjen Robben starring for Bayern, Wesley Sneijder the vital goal-maker for Inter – two Dutchmen who could dominate the World Cup for the orange-shirted Netherlands side rated at only 12-1 to win the global event which kicks off in South Africa next month.

And there, at Soccer City where it all starts on June 11, we saw Johannesburg's Wits beat Durban's Amazulu 3-0 in front of the deafening Vuvuzelas yesterday, while just down the road in Soweto’s Super Stadium, rugby was played in the notorious township for the first time. A sell-out crowd of 42,000 saw Pretoria’s Bulls beat the New ZealandCrusaders to reach the Super 14 final without a hitch.

And next week, they return to Soweto – forced out of their home ground at LoftusVersveld by the World Cup – to play Cape Town’s Stormers, who beat Australia’sWaratahs at Newlands last night.

Have we mentioned enough countries? Involved enough rivalries? Exploited enough schisms? Confused? You will be. Just read it slowly.

In the end, the last great milestone of the winter – after Blackpool won the long-awaited right to return to the English Premier League against Welsh hopefuls Cardiff atWembley – was won by Mourinho’s relentlessly miserly approach. His Inter sat back while Bayern probed. Just as they had against Barca’s billionaires.

There was a possible handball in the box as Robben exploited weaknesses down the right, constantly whipping around the back to set up the play against an Inter side who became the first team in the European Cup not to field a single player from the country they represent.

Sub-plot numero infinito. Exactly where does that leave Italy, the holders, in SouthAfrica next month? And Bayern’s German internationals are hardly thrilling their critics before the big one either.

More rivalries, more ironies, more nagging questions than anybody can keep up with.

Suffice to say the great occasion among many big sporting events yesterday failed to capture the imagination for 35 yawning minutes, despite a feverish opening ceremony of dancing Castillian Senoritas which opened the night’s events.

The first half was finally enlivened by a well-taken goal from Argentina’s Diego Milito. Took it well, his 28th of the season, against the run of play. But of course, he has a story too. Controversial Argentine coach Diego Mardona is said to be thinking of playing creaking veterans like Juan Sebastian Veron – who played for Manchester United eons ago – ahead of Inter’s current Argentine stars. He hasn’t even picked Inter pair Esteban Camibiasso and Javier Zanetti. But he did remember Milito.

Before the goal, Inter had been in deadly defensive Mourinho mode, barring a rifled free-kick from distance from Sneijder.

It was Sneijder who got on the end of their long-ball goal, Milito winning the flick on and taking the return to score with glee past Hans Joerg Butt, the veteran 35-year-old goalkeeper who will probably be Germany’s custodian when they open their World Cup campaign against Australia in Durban.

Butt’s story? Oliver Kahn and Jens Lehmann have retired, Robert Enke committed suicide last year and Rene Adler is injured. Some tale. Some route to becoming your nation’s No1.

Two minutes before half-time, Milito and Sneijder combined again but this time the Dutchman was through, failing to beat Butt’s knee from 12 yards.

The second half saw both goalkeepers – Butt and Inter’s Brazilian No1 Julio Cesar - at full-stretch in the first five minutes and it looked like we were in for a real thriller.

On the Bayern bench Miroslav Klose, who can’t even get in the starting eleven, kicked his heels. He’ll be leading the German line in the Group of Death against the Aussies, Serbia and Ghana. Another sub-plot, number ninety-nein.

In all there were 18 probable World Cup players in evidence. Around 280 million people watching last night. Not to mention 180 photographers and 600 journalists. But we had only one goal to savour.

Is that why “The Special One” was finally discarded by Chelsea’s billionaire owner Roman Abramovich? The Russian wanted to spend his £500m on craft, not graft.

Mourinho, who conquered Europe seven years ago with an otherwise unremarkable Porto, produces results, not masterpieces.

Another Chelsea discard, Robben, kept us on the edge of our seats, as he has throughout Bayern’s Euro run. Christian Chivu, responsible for the earlier handball and booked for his efforts to keep in touch with the Dutchman, simply couldn’t cope withthe man who is clearly more creative than Lionel Messi and his diddy dallying. Europe’s player of the season by a country mile, is Robben.

Cesar’s 65th minute save from a Robben curler was superb – now we begin to understand why Tottenham’s ever-improving Heurelho Gomes may not see much game time in South Africa.

But ultimately the night belonged to Milito. With 70 minutes on the clock, he turned theBayern defence inside out to wrap things up with a brilliantly taken second. Inter last triumphed at this level in 1966-67. Hardly worth mentioning England last won the World Cup around that time. Or that referee Howard Webb, the only Englishman on the park, had a superb evening.

Game over. Even Maradona can’t ignore a talent like Milito, who has 48 goals in 67 games for Inter. Can he?

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