Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Jose Mourinho beaten at his own game

Fernando Torres looks away as Diego Costa takes his penalty
Fernando Torres looks away as Diego Costa takes his penalty

Maybe, when he looks back on another losing semi-final, Jose Mourinho will wish he had shown more adventure in the first leg in Madrid last week.

In the modern game, with teams so expert at the counter-attack, a goalless first leg away is no longer a great result. It is not a bad one, but it does leave a team vulnerable.

But leopards find it hard to change their spots and Mourinho failed to appreciate that, in the Vicente Calderon Stadium, he came up against a kindred spirit.

Brendan Rodgers, with his commitment to attractive attacking play, sent his Liverpool team out to win Sunday's match at Anfield even though a goalless draw would have been a good result for him, still keeping the title race in their hands.

Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone, however, approaches matches from the same basic principle as Mourinho: there are no points for artistic merit. Last week, in Madrid, both teams played much the same way and it was boring.

Chelsea played for a 0-0 and Atletico were wary of over-committing in attack for fear of conceding an away goal. Fans of both clubs will have been glued to their screens, but uncommitted viewers all over Europe were reaching for the remote control to see what else was on.

Last night began in similar fashion. Both teams were more positive than last week, but not much more. In the opening 30 minutes, we had Koke's mis-hit cross striking the bar, Willian sending a free-kick just over, and Gary Cahill blocking Diego Costa at close range.

For a while the most riveting action was on the touchline. Mourinho and Simeone spent the entire match in the technical areas which, at Stamford Bridge, are barely four feet apart.

Mourinho occasionally rested on his haunches, but was always drawn swiftly to his feet, aggrieved at an official's decision or a player's actions.

Underlining the idea that these were the bad guys, Simeone was also dressed in black, far more stylishly, but still with the haircut vividly described in these pages last week as that of a Mexican prison gang member.

The Argentine prowled his demarcated zone like a caged bear and, like Mourinho, frequently stepped out of it to make a point to his players – or the referee.

It was Fernando Torres' goal which brought attention back to the pitch, changing the game as goals so often do.

Suddenly Atletico needed to score and the match opened up.

The attacking play which has taken them to the peak of La Liga was unleashed.

Their equaliser came from a riot of movement which pulled Chelsea's defence hither and thither with the result that, when the cross came back from Juanfran at the back post, Ashley Cole, who should have been there, was standing in the middle of the six-yard box, adrift from his bearings (which is not to excuse the prime culprit, Eden Hazard, who failed to track Juanfran's run).

The away goals rule has its critics these days (exhibit A: the first leg) but it really kicks in when a match reaches the situation this one was in at half-time. A stalemate was no longer possible, one side always had to score.

So Mourinho put on a second centre-forward, who made a centre-forward's tackle when in the unfamiliar territory of his own penalty area. Atletico picked their hosts off after that.

So we have an all-Madrid final. Why will anyone outside Spain watch? Well, what draws us to watching sport?

Is it the tribalism that brought thousands from Iberia to south-west London last night, bedecked in red and white?

Is it the soap opera plot lines, like Torres opening last night's scoring against his former team, where he was loved, for his current one, where he is barely tolerated?

Or is it the beauty and joy of watching athletes perform at such a high level – skills we mortals struggle with?

In truth it is all three.

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