FOX Soccer Exclusive
Defense, clinical finishing key for Inter
Inter Milan won its first European Cup in 45 years today in thrilling fashion, riding two goals by the Argentine Diego Milito to a comprehensive 2-0 win over Bayern Munich.
With the win, Inter manager Jose Mourinho became just the third manager, after Ernst Happel and Ottmar Hitzfeld, to win the European Cup with two different clubs.
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The result completed a marvelous year for the Milan side, which took the Serie A title, the Italian Cup and now the Champions League in a rare treble. Perhaps more telling is the fact that en route to today’s crown, Inter Milan felled the champions of England, Germany and Spain, making as clear a case for Italian football’s return to prominence as it does for Mourinho’s brilliance.
Tonight, Inter played classic, muscular defensive football, frustrating a Munich side lacking its biggest inventor to suspension.
Credit Arjen Robben for doing all he could without Franck Ribery as his partner in tonight’s lineup – the Dutchman was crafting and dangerous, and more than one foray from the flank left into the center gave Inter a start. But without his French partner, Robben's Bayern was revealed to be too one dimensional to crack an Inter side that rarely makes mistakes.
Even with Thomas Mueller enjoying perhaps his best game in the late stages of this European Cup, Bayern could only test Julio Cesar’s net, nor defeat him. And with the club world’s best back four – Maicon, Walter Samuel, Lucio and Christian Chivu -- with Javier Zanetti providing the important midfield cover in front, it was swiftly clear that Bayern were in for a long night.
Mourinho slyly chose to attack from the opening whistle, a feint which served to test just how much ground Bayern were willing to concede. The answer – not much. Philipp Lahm, who usually roams forward to attack was left at home tonight by Louis van Gaal, and seeing that, Mourinho knew that with Esteban Cambiasso able to stifle Mark van Bommel, there would be little chance of Bayern truly engaging his side.
That’s not to say that Bayern were impotent: Far from it. But it is telling that even with gilt-edged chances, such as Mueller’s 46th minute opportunity that Julio Cesar was able to foil with his legs at full stretch, Bayern was able to rattle what is essentially a composed Milanese team just twice.
Robben flying into the box? Met by Cambiasso.
Bastian Schweinsteiger trying to spring Ivica Olic? No dice, with Goran Pandev and Zanetti snuffing that out.
Bayern were allowed room to roam – but to no avail. Every ball from van Bommel, every flick in from Robben was met. Actim claims that Bayern enjoyed nearly 70% of possession, but as Inter showed against Barcelona, what good is having the ball if you cannot punish the opponent with it?
And Inter’s deadliest weapon, the counterattack, was used once again to devastating effect. Twice, Milito was found in full stride by a searching ball out of the back. Twice, he scored.
The first came on a punt of nearly 80 yeards from Julio Cesar. Milito headed the ball down to his left to Wesley Sneijder, who cleanly split the defense with the return ball. Milito, so good at gaining time and space, froze Hans-Joerg Butt with a hitch in his stride, then coldly finished.
The second was even icier, coming as it did hard on the heels of what had been Bayern’s most dynamic attack of the game. Samuel Eto’o, dead at center field, popped the ball to Milito, who then cruelly turned Mark van Buyten with a highlight-reel juke before stranding Butt with a shot to the far side that curled cleanly home.
Unlike Barcelona, who wallowed in their frustration against the polished Mourinho defense, Bayern was able to make Inter truly work, and it’s fitting that the moment of panic came from the feet of Robben.
A 63rd minute free-kick was smashed into the wall, falling to Mueller, who had a golden chance to score. With his teammates clearly at sea, it was Cambiasso who rose up to head the ball to safety. It was a turning point in the game: had Bayern converted, they might have roared forward.
Instead, they were left to rue the counter seven minutes later which sealed the deal.
German partisans tonight will rue their team’s profligacy, pointing out that Julio Cesar was forced into making at least four quality saves. But that overlooks the fact that the Brazilian has been doing that all year, and that such high-wire theatrics conceal a resilience that has not been bested.
Yes, Bayern regained command as the Bundesliga's top side, but their defensivee frailities have been well-chronicled. Defense wins championships, and tonight, Inter stands with three pieces of silver, and a number of big scalps.
Bayern has rightfully regained its place among Europe's elite but has some problems to solve over the summer. No wonder van Gaal embraced Mourinho even before the final whistle sounded; the best masters expect to be surpassed by their pupils, and the best managers are gracious in defeat.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the Champions League and European football.