Reputations, silverware at stake as van Gaal and Mourinho clash

LONDON —

It is nearly 18 years since Louis van Gaal met Jose Mourinho. The latter was an angry young man, dismayed that his mentor Sir Bobby Robson had been kicked upstairs by Barcelona in order that van Gaal could take over the first team and naturally fearful for his own job. He had been Robson’s interpreter in Portugal and impressed the veteran Englishman so much with his soccer knowledge that the two had moved together to Spain.

But van Gaal had a use for Mourinho. Having made his reputation entirely in his native Holland, helping to make Ajax champions of Europe in 1995, he spoke little Spanish. He had been advised by the generous-spirited Robson to retain Mourinho as his eyes and ears around a dressing room containing such strong characters as Josep Guardiola and Hristo Stoichkov –€“ and took the point. Moreover, he gave Mourinho experience of actual hands-on coaching, letting him conduct sessions and even guide the team through some of their less high-profile games, such as in the Catalan Cup.

This proved the start of something big. Within a few years, after van Gaal himself had been sacked, Mourinho returned to Portugal, became his own man and eventually made such a brilliant job of it that Porto combined successive national titles with triumphs in first the UEFA Cup, beating Celtic in the final, and then the UEFA Champions League, with Manchester United being of the victims along the way.

He was lured to Chelsea and has rarely been out of the headlines since, winning further national titles in England, Italy (with Internazionale) and Spain (with Real Madrid), plus a second Champions League title with Internazionale. That came at the expense of van Gaal’s Bayern Munich, whom Inter overcame at the Santiago Bernabeu in Mourinho’s last game before he took up more lengthy residence in Madrid.

NOT SO SPECIAL

It took van Gaal and Mourinho more than four years to renew what had now become a rivalry –€“ a friendly one, for van Gaal has been only too happy to deliver a warm tribute to Mourinho on the occasion of his honoring by England’s Football Writers’ Association in January 2014. By then Mourinho was in his second spell with Chelsea. In the summer, van Gaal joined him in the Barclays Premier League as successor to David Moyes at United, whose first serious test of the season came when Chelsea visited Old Trafford in late October. After four minutes of added time, Robin van Persie equalized and in Chelsea’s frustration could be detected an echo, however faint, of the indomitable quality Sir Alex Ferguson had instilled at United.

Shortly afterwards, United lost a derby to Manchester City and lay ninth in the table. There were still rough times in the transition to van Gaal’s ways and they were encountered as recently as Feb. 21, when United were beaten 2-1 at Swansea. But there have now been six straight wins. "Beware the Ides of March. William Shakespeare wrote that. It was a soothsayer’s warning to Julius Caesar, who was duly assassinated on that day. March 15 was also the day United beat Tottenham Hotspur 3-0 and van Gaal delivered words to the effect that his United side had clicked. He, too, has been proved right and English soccer may not be the same again –€“ at least not for a while — now that the country’s biggest club have regained much of their old style and swagger.

You won’t need reminding that United are at Stamford Bridge this weekend and, while it would be stretching a point to describe this as a title decider –€“ even if United win, Chelsea should proceed to take the honor for which they have been hot favorites all season –€“ the confrontation could give us more than a clue as to who will be front-runners next season. United have been as ominous as that of late, following up a win at Liverpool with a derby display at Old Trafford that left City feeling a little flattered by a 4-2 defeat. But Saturday is likely to be a different kind of game, as van Gaal knows better than most; he has often highlighted the difference in philosophy between himself, as a committed entertainer, and the devotedly pragmatic Mourinho.

What Chelsea’s lead at the top of the table –€“ they are seven points ahead of Arsenal and eight ahead of United, and have seven games to play while they have only six –€“ allows them to do is settle for a home draw. Even their fans won’t mind them simply letting the clock tick down to those seemingly inevitable celebrations. It is United, if anyone, who are under pressure to win, thereby moving above Arsenal, who are otherwise engaged on the business of an FA Cup semifinal against Reading (live, Saturday, FOX, 12:30 p.m. ET)  which has been bizarrely scheduled by the BBC to start at the same time as Chelsea-United.

No doubt, too, van Gaal would like to record a first win over Mourinho. He is 11 years the elder but not quite the better, having only one Champions League title to Mourinho’s two. Although van Gaal has eight national titles to Mourinho’s seven, with the Dutchman has taken a lot longer about it. But he has something at least as important as time on his side now in the form of United’s budget, which, under Financial Fair Play rules, will equip them to outbid Chelsea for players as they prepare to return to the Champions League next season.

It is widely believed that Mourinho wanted the job Van Gaal now holds and its potential may be released, as it once was by Ferguson, when van Gaal enjoys his second English season. Both he and Mourinho will be taking their clubs across the Atlantic this summer and it should make for lively eve-of-campaign discourse.