Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich: European Super Cup Preview
The build-up to Friday’s European Super Cup will, inevitably, centre around the two managers.
There’s good reason for this, too, as not only are Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola the sport’s only two bona fide A-list coaches, each with the looks and tailors to match, but they share one of the few genuine personal rivalries within football today.
In the summer of 2010 they embarked on a two-year on- and off-field battle that left both men bruised, battered and, in their own ways, defeated.
While it was the visibly grizzled Guardiola who brought an end to the pair’s spell as La Liga competitors after ceding the 2011/12 league title to Madrid, citing comprehensive exhaustion as his reason taking a year’s sabbatical, a completely grey Mourinho also departed Spanish shores 12 months later.
Having used all of his might to temporarily overhaul Barcelona, the Portuguese ended his spell in the capital as the eventual victim of a club-wide civil war of his own making, having added admirably to his already bulging portfolio of conspiracy theories, touchline assaults and dressing-room fall-outs in the process.
This absorbing narrative makes for a fascinating prism through which to view Friday’s clash. Those of us who appreciate football’s pantomime element should be thankful.
But it’s not just surface-level soap opera that the two managers will bring to their latest face-off: each harbours their own distinct footballing outlook, too, and despite it being early days, their respective new sides are already starting to look eerily familiar.
Jose Mourinho’s first game in charge of Chelsea was a comfortable 2-0 win in which an early sucker-punch followed by a Frank Lampard long-ranger allowed the Blues to play out the second half in cruise control. In short, it was 2005 all over again.
The feeling of déjà-vu has only been exacerbated by the fact that their following two fixtures have delivered a headed winner from a set-piece, an unpunished John Terry handball and a soul-sappingly dull big-game nil-nil.
Welcome back, Jose—the game needs characters like you!
Tactically, the major question hanging over Mourinho’s return was whether, as a manager who typically favours pace and physicality in his frontline, he would be able to make the best use of his attackers, who are all diminutive, drifting playmakers.
As a master pragmatist, it should be little surprise that Mourinho is already carving himself a bespoke strike force out of his squadron of creative lemmings.
Eden Hazard’s pace and direct dribbling already look to have made him a manager’s favourite, with the Belgian essentially employed in the fast-breaking wide-man role that's been filled in past Mourinho sides by the likes of Arjen Robben and Angel Di Maria.
Elsewhere in the forward line, the industry and tactical discipline of Oscar and Kevin De Bruyne looks to have made up for a lack of muscle mass in the eyes of their new boss. Despite an inability to muster a single facial hair between them, the duo nonetheless defend from the front with a diligence and know-how that belies their years.
Unsurprisingly, the back five looks as good a unit as it has done since the Portuguese was last in charge, but there are questions over the effectiveness of a midfield that lacks a destroyer of pedigree—both over the course of a season and against high-grade opposition.
Handily enough, there is no higher-grade opposition in world football, and no better midfield, than Bayern’s—and especially so now that last season’s all-powerful metronome of Martinez-Schweinsteiger has, preposterously, been strengthened by the summer additions of wunderkinds Thiago Alcantara and Mario Gotze (though the former will sit Friday’s game out injured).
With such a disparity in quality existing between the two engine rooms, and Mourinho being Mourinho, it’s not unlikely that Chelsea will willingly yield possession to the Bavarians, sit six men behind the halfway line, and look to spring breakaways with the high-speed pace and improvisation of Hazard, Oscar and whichever two attackers are selected alongside them.
At the back, Chelsea will likely look to isolate and crowd out probable lone striker Mario Mandzukic, and, given that they boast two of Europe's most defensively sound full-backs, will not be overly worried about the ball arriving at the feet of Bayern’s much-vaunted wide duo of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben despite both being potential match-winners.
The Germans will be hoping that their swarm tactics—which both did and didn’t work against Chelsea in the Champions League final of 2012—are now foolproof.
Bayern fashioned more than enough openings to secure a win, but they also failed both individually and collectively at almost every key moment—a toxic habit that May’s cathartic victory over Borussia Dortmund has supposedly purged them of.
While the narrative of the managers will take rightful precedence throughout the pre-match coverage, matters on the touchline could also directly decide the on-pitch result. Bayern unarguably possess the stronger, more talented side, but Mourinho, Chelsea, and Mourinho's Chelsea are nothing if not well-rehearsed in the art of nullification.
The suspicion, then, is that despite Friday's fixture existing as a relative showpiece and its two protagonists possessing the requisite Hollywood glamour, once the opening credits have rolled, the football itself may prove to be more of a slow-burn affair than an all-action one.
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