A quiet fear hangs over tonight's Champions League final, an unease that the event might too closely resemble the second legs of the ties that steered Inter Milan and Bayern Munich to their showdown in Madrid. If Inter become inclined too early in the match to stoically defend a lead, as they did over 180 minutes against Barcelona, then the neutral viewers would spend the evening starved of end-to-end entertainment.
But nor would those neutrals be perched on the edge of their seats if it turned out as one-sided as Bayern's 3-0 destruction of Olympique Lyonnais. Spoilers, as Inter were in Barcelona, do not make for great Cup finals. Neither do teams who are coasting, as Bayern quickly were in France. Happily there is enough about both contestants to indicate they have sufficient reserves of initiative and fibre to prevent any repeat of what happened on their previous outings. It is a novel final in many respects. It looks different from the seven previous Champions League deciders because it has a German club in it; it is unlike the five preceding finals because it does not have an English team involved.
It is fresh, and supposedly more child-friendly, because it is taking place on a Saturday. It is also a duel of classic, thoroughbred clubs. It may have been a long while since Inter were this close to capturing the European Cup, but they did so twice in the 1960s, just as Bayern had a hat-trick of such triumphs in the middle of the 1970s. Inter are most experts' likely champions. On the basis of recent form, though, Bayern should be favourites. They thrashed Lyon in the semis - it was 4-0 on aggregate - and they come to Spain on the back of a 4-0 win over Werder Bremen in the German Cup final and an emphatic finale to their successful Bundesliga campaign.
According strictly to form, Inter would be presented as the nervous qualifiers, victors by the narrowest margin in the last round, Italian champions thanks only to a 1-0 win on the last day of the Serie A season, chasing a treble thanks only to what was a close win in the Coppa Italia over Roma. Inter also lost their last Champions League match, 1-0 at Barcelona, although they came through thanks to an aggregate score of 3-2.
That decider in Catalonia unfairly shapes perceptions of how Inter construct their game plans, Jose Mourinho told those neutrals in the media who harbour the fear it could become a crabby final should his team strike first. "Yes, we didn't just park the bus [put most of the players behind the ball] at Barcelona, we parked an Airbus 340 with the wings stretched out!" he said of the rearguard action in the semi-final. "Why did we do that? We had a 3-1 advantage from the first game and we were down to 10 men in the second. But remember the first leg. We could have scored five that night, and I lined the team up with Wesley Sneijder, Samuel Eto'o, Goran Pandev and Diego Milito, all attacking players."
Mourinho knows that a label as a conservative and defensive coach sticks on him tenaciously. It is not a tag that Louis van Gaal, Bayern's head coach, has been inclined to peel off on Mourinho's behalf. Van Gaal was once Mourinho's boss, at Barcelona 12 years ago, and the Dutchman has been happy to repeat in the build-up to tonight his notion that Mourinho learned well but did not take on Van Gaal's belief that his teams "should try to entertain."
Mourinho's response? Respectful and grateful. "Louis van Gaal gave me the chance to work for three years in a great club. But I worked hard for it too. I had my tasks on the field, I went to scout our opponents, compiled reports, briefed the team about upcoming matches. Van Gaal was a great coach and always very honest with me. He also gave me advice on important decisions in my career." Then came the reminder of Mourinho's independent streak. "I'm not his disciple," said the former apprentice. "And remember: I know Van Gaal as a head coach. He doesn't know me as a head coach. He only knows Mourinho the assistant. And that's a big distinction."