It is tempting to look at the top half of the Premier League table and see rows of upright dominoes. At some point soon, one will teeter and tap its neighbor's shoulder, and then who knows how many, and which, will follow. What if Harry Redknapp takes the England job? (What if Spurs lose to Manchester United this weekend, and Arsenal beat Liverpool?) What if Chelsea does not get back into the Champions League places? What if Roman Abramovich sacks Andre Villas-Boas? What if he's the replacement? Why? When?
Real Madrid's hopes of winning a first Spanish title since 2008 survived a stern test on Saturday, as Jose Mourinho marked his 50th La Liga match as coach with a tense 3-2 victory at third-placed Valencia.
The new season started the way the old one ended: with Real Madrid and Barcelona taking center stage, eclipsing everyone else as they fought it out for a trophy. And by the end, "fought" was the word. Those who hoped that passions would have cooled over the summer were disappointed. The fact that the Super Copa is, to use Jose Mourinho's words, "the most important of the preseason games, the least important of the actual season games" made no difference. This was no friendly. How could it be?
Maybe there's a new dimension to Jose Mourinho's specialness, one we've so far overlooked. In fact, perhaps it's the single biggest feat of his managerial career. In the two seasons he was at Inter, the club was, well, "normal."
Ask Sir Alex Ferguson to tell you his best José Mourinho story, and the Manchester United manager lets out a cackle. Sir Alex and Mourinho, the Real Madrid coach, are (arguably) the two greatest coaches in world soccer, men who have become friends over the years after competing against each other in the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League.
Cristiano Ronaldo got almost all the goals and absolutely all the headlines, the cover of Marca appearing to reveal its entire editorial line with "CR7, CR7, CR7 ... and more CR7," but when Real Madrid trashed Racing Santander 6-1 on Oct. 23, you could make a very good case for its best player being Ángel Di María. And one man making that case -- one man making that case very, very publicly indeed -- was Real manager Jose Mourinho.
There is a wonderful moment in this month's "Informe Robinson" where Michael Robinson, the former Liverpool and Osasuna striker and now one of the most respected presenters and directors on Spanish television, leans forward and asks Jose Mourinho a rather personal question. "Is your wife in love with The Special One too?"
"If they buy another striker, I'm going to have to write to FIFA to ask them to let us use only just half the pitch." That was the exasperated, private conclusion drawn by one former Real Madrid manager who had seen the club sign another attacking player he didn't need and sell a couple of key players that he did. The key word was 'they' -- far from going hand in hand, the inescapable sensation was that coach was one thing, the club another -- and it wasn't a one-off.
Sometimes the best tactics can be the simplest. After all the talk about pupils overcoming masters, of the wily veteran against the protégé he developed over three years at Barcelona, there was no sense here that Jose Mourinho had outwitted the Bayern Munich coach, Louis van Gaal. Internazionale won the Champions League final because it has better players, and exploited Bayern's weaknesses.
Nearly 11 months of competition have come to this, a Champions League final to be duked out in king of rings, the Santiago Bernabeu. In the blue corner, the lip-curled sneer of Jose Mourinho, who actually seems to be enjoying his success at Internazionale -- this is a league and cup double-winning season -- about as much as a punch in the face. In the red corner, Louis van Gaal, whose Bayern Munich side thrashed Werder Bremen 4-0 to claim its own double last weekend.
At the start of this season's Champions League campaign, very few observers would have predicted that the two teams left standing on the eve of the final would be Inter Milan and Bayern Munich. And yet, after disposing of more fancied opposition in the semifinals, both teams are poised to make history in a final that has more than its fair share of subplots. Here's five things to note about the final:
Saturday's Champions League final between Internazionale and Bayern Munich has come to feel as though it's as much a clash between their respective managers, Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal, as between the clubs. The flamboyant Latin and the phlegmatic Dutchman are linked, of course, by the time Mourinho spent working under Van Gaal at Barcelona between 1997 and 2000.
When the final whistle went, the bar erupted. Through the raised fists, the smoke and the bodies hugging each other, you could just about make out the television screen as Inter manager Jose Mourinho sprinted across the Camp Nou, celebrating what he would later describe as "the most beautiful defeat of my life."
Even though Inter and Jose Mourinho have been denying it since his appointment, the fact is that this is why he was hired to manage the Nerazzurri (and why he is far and away the highest-paid coach in the world): to deliver the Champions League. And now he has come within 90 minutes of achieving that goal, after defeating what -- in a few years -- we will probably remember as one of the greatest club sides in history.
It's the ultimate in gloating -- the traditional song that really, really rubs it in and stings like hell. You've traveled miles and miles to watch your team but hope has turned to despair, all you've eaten is a ropey sandwich at a service station and all you've drunk is a bottle of warm Coke that's long since gone flat. Which might not be a bad thing, because there's no way you're trusting your backside to that toilet.
First, a disclaimer. Yes, after three consecutive seasons of having three English league clubs in the Champions League semifinals, this year there aren't any. Not since 2003-04 has Europe's Final Four included no Premiership teams.
For three consecutive summers, José Mourinho brought Chelsea to the U.S. for preseason training and friendlies against other touring European clubs and assorted Major League Soccer teams. Two years after his last trip, the Portuguese manager will bring a new team back to the States.