Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

James Lawton: San Siro shine has gone for Mourinho as Chelsea sparkle

Jose Mourinho is feeling heat in Italy, more certainly, than at any point in his long and frequently orgiastic relationship with the English media.

Perhaps not to the total surprise of some of us, though, there are a few shrewd judges who believe that quite a bit of the pressure and anger has been generated, with delicious irony, by the Special One himself.

He did it partly in a speech that even those who growl that he is a self-obsessed opportunist who will, sooner or later, be exposed for tactical limitations which become obvious when he has to do more than marshal his advantages in power and personnel, will admit was rather brilliant.

He declared that he had been mistaken in his belief that Italy had a deep love of football. The truth was, said Mourinho, Italy did not love football but the contorno.

In other words, Italy likes everything about the game except the playing of it. It loves all that goes around football — the controversy, the rows, the corruption, the shame, the scandal, the outrageous statements of embattled coaches and smug players.

It loves to scream and whistle at the villains and sooner or later, pick holes in the heroes, but the nuances of the game, the ebb and flow of it, the way one team can overwhelm with its discipline and intelligence another, the distinguishing marks of greatness in individual players, well, it is not really of any great importance.

Coming from someone who might be described as the Grand Wizard of contorno, this is a bracing statement, but even those Italians less than overwhelmed by his early work with Internazionale concede that he has a point.

The trouble is that he made it at a time when the first signs that his Italian honeymoon was beginning to fray were emerging. Now it seems that almost anything that happens in Milan, or his old stronghold of London, or Barcelona, where he seemed to be heading last summer, is seized upon for its anti-Mourinho possibilities: Luiz Felipe Scolari's Chelsea are scoring goals with both freedom and precision and playing the kind of football which always seemed beyond Mourinho; Barcelona's decision to prefer the unheralded coach in their system, Pep Guardiola, to Mourinho is being greeted as a masterstroke along Las Ramblas and now for the benefit of the Mourinho-baiting, in Milan.

It leaves Mourinho, the man who announced early in his Chelsea reign that he was a star of his own movie, drawing reviews that might even bring a wince to the face of Guy Ritchie.

In the early going in Italy every utterance of Mourinho was lovingly recorded and blazed across the front page of the leading sports paper, Gazzetta dello Sport. Reinforced by the approval of such Italian football icons as Marcello Lippi and Arrigo Saachi, Mourinho's move was being watched by a spellbound audience.

Then, something that took several years to dawn on Mourinho's most generous paymaster, Roman Abramovich, was detected rather earlier in San Siro. Mourinho might be a master of pressure football, a superb motivator of committed, hugely rewarded players, but his game did not exactly thrill the senses.

Now the knives are glistening with menace again as Internazionale's rivals Milan, a club widely considered to be in deep crisis at the start of the season, take over the lead of the league that was dominated so comfortably by the team shaped by Mourinho's predecessor, Roberto Mancini. Nor does it help that Ronaldinho and Kaka are finding some authentic Brazilian rhythm in the Milan revival.

The first wave of criticism of Mourinho followed desperate goalless draws with Genoa at home and then in Florence. One front page carried a picture of Mourinho beautifully dressed and coiffed on the day of his appointment and another of him in the dugout with a desperate expression, shorn hair and his usual match-day stubble. Ludicrously, the banner said, "What's happening to you, Mou?" But the underlying point was a dagger in the coach's ribs. He was now a marked man.

Mourinho is, of course, a long way from facing judgement. Sacchi, a revolutionary winning coach with Milan, has declared his faith, pointing out the record with Porto and Chelsea and declares that all that is needed is a little patience. Lippi says that Mourinho is still bedding down and that, at such a formative stage, being one point off the pace is not exactly disaster.

However, as far as the Italian press is concerned the wise men might as well be bellowing a discordant version of "Santa Lucia".

The love affair is over and the contorno has never been so laden with rich pickings. You may say this is a dreadful way to treat the Special One, but then it is hard to deny a kind of poetic justice.

In England no one played the contorno game more adroitly, or unscrupulously or, at times, more dishonestly than Jose Mourinho. He played it so well it took several years for anyone to take a serious look at his football.

This cannot be said to be happening in Italy. Maybe they have heeded Mourinho's words. Maybe they are beginning to take a peek at what's happening on the field.

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