Jim White

Mourinho two steps away from renewing the biggest rivalry of all

Jim White

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For Jose Mourinho the possibility is still on.

A potential meeting with Real Madrid in the Champions League final remains open to him after Chelsea and his former club were drawn apart in the semi-finals.

There is just one minor obstacle to be overcome for the dream to come to fruition: Real have to beat Bayern Munich and his team have to overcome Atletico.

It has been a long time since a semi-final draw has been as open as this one. None of the conclusions would be a surprise: Chelsea against Bayern, Chelsea against Real, Atletico against Bayern or a Madrid derby, no one permutation is more likely than the others. Absolutely anything could happen. Though I have a feeling one conclusion is pre-ordained.

One thing in his favour, Mourinho will go into the semi in possession of an unvarnished record against Atletico. When he was in charge at the Bernabeu, his team played their cross town rivals six times and he won the lot. Never mind that Chelsea lost to the Spaniards 4-1 when they last played them in Europe – in the Super Cup final in 2012, that was long before he returned to the Bridge. Two managers before, in fact.

Mind, things have improved considerably for Atletico since Mourinho left the city. Under the enlightened guidance of Diego Simeone, the club is on course for a magnificent, era-busting double of the Champions League and La Liga titles.

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Given the reduced nature of his playing budget, a sum which would be pushed to fund the car valeting bill at Chelsea, Real or Bayern, Simone has done remarkably well to find himself in such distinguished company. His stewardship has delivered results that are little short of astonishing.

He has done it by an embrace of the work ethic that makes Atletico at times exhausting to watch, never mind play against. Constantly pressing, constantly closing down, constantly harrying, his aim, he says, is for his team to control space rather than control possession.

To get them to work like they do he has instilled a magnificent team spirit. Watching him in the technical area is to see someone endlessly praising, endlessly enthusing. He is forever turning to the crowd to exhort them to applaud the effort of the team. The corollary of all that support is that he expects them to fight until they drop.

“Hard work and humility,” are his watch words. They are all in it together, he insists. Unlike his crosstown rivals, this is not a collection of galacticos it is a team. And no team works harder than Atletico.

The irony of his collective endeavour is that individual players are being marked out. How Manchester United would love Koke in their midfield next season, how Chelsea would love Diego Costa leading their line, how Arsenal would benefit from a presence as disciplined and strong as Gabi.

None of them, though, is as coveted as the manager. Best known in England for his clash with David Beckham at the 1998 World Cup, Simeone is held in God-like esteem at the Vincente Calderon. A player who was part of the Atletico team who last won La Liga in 1996, he took over as boss of his old club in December 2011 when they were just four points above the relegation zone.

Such a transformation as he has engendered has been noted across the continent, not least at Barcelona where his fellow Argentine Tata Martino makes David Moyes look a safe pair of hands.

For now, though, he remains at Atletico, attempting to engineer the most unlikely of doubles. And the draw presents Mourinho with the need for a new narrative. All season he has been casting his Chelsea team as the plucky under dogs of the game, conspired against by authority, bereft of striking options, an operation with the odds stacked up against them. No one will buy that against Simeone’s genuine outsiders. But whatever line he takes, I suspect Mourinho might just have the resources to outwit Atletico. It might not be pretty, but Chelsea may well be a good bet for lining up in the final in Lisbon.

Were he to progress, Mourinho could cheerfully return to his script. There he would be up against European aristocracy. The history involved in the other semi-final is enormous. 20 times Bayern and Real have played each other in the European Cup, five times in the last four. Munich have won four of those, in 1976, 1987, 2001 and 2012. Madrid’s only victory was in 2000. Not for nothing can it be suggested the Spanish giants have a complex about the Germans.

Which is why I think the runes suggest it will be Bayern and Chelsea lining up on 24 May.

And while that may not have the same undercurrents as Chelsea against Real it will not be without its sub-plots, not least with the re-acquaintance of two managers whose mutual loathing was constantly on the very point of combustion when they met in La Liga.

Jose against Pep, Bayern seeking revenge for 2012: let’s hope, if it works out that way, they’ve got everything nailed down at the Estadio de Luz. Things could turn explosive.

Jim White - on Twitter @jimw1

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