MADRID (AP) — The Champions League final is so evenly matched that the title could come down to a coaching decision by Bayern Munich's Louis van Gaal or his one-time assistant, Inter Milan's Jose Mourhino.
Two of the most successful coaches of recent years, they both were at Barcelona more than a decade ago when van Gaal was the head coach and Mourinho part of his backup team. Each team won its domestic league and cup titles and is striving to end the season with triple successes.
"We worked together for three years," van Gaal said Friday. "He was an excellent coach and trainer and carried out all analyses for Barcelona and studied our opponents and did an excellent job.
"Little did I know that he would turn out such a great coach. He's one of the best in the world."
The cool, more-experienced van Gaal has won 15 major titles to 13 for the feisty Mourinho, the self-proclaimed "Special One." Van Gaal will aim to show why he's still the master on Saturday in the first Champions League final broadcast by a U.S. over-the-air network.
Mourinho has refused to say he will remain at Inter for next season, leading to speculation the former Porto and Chelsea manager will move on to Real Madrid.
While Mourinho has a hugely experienced defense at Inter with the likes of Argentines Javier Zanetti and Walter Samuel, and Brazilians Maicon and Lucio, van Gaal looks to Arjen Robben to attack them with his bursts of speed and powerful, long-range shooting with his left foot.
Although Franck Ribery is suspended, Bayern has the talent to unlock Inter's defense with Croatian striker Ivica Olic aiming to follow up his hat-trick against Lyon, which put the team into its eighth final.
Bastian Schweinsteiger has switched from a right-sided attacking midfielder and is supporting the forwards from behind and, with 20-year-old Thomas Mueller playing just behind Olic, van Gaal has the luxury of putting German national team forwards Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez on the bench.
"My philosophy is always to attack an opponent on the pitch," van Gaal said. "Mourinho is more defensive, that's his tactic, but he has good players who can decide the match."
Diego Milito will be Inter's main attacking force, with Samuel Eto'o close by and Wesley Sneijder supporting as the playmaker.
But Inter's real strength is how it copes when the other team has possession. With Thiago Motta suspended, a lot will depend on Esteban Cambiaso to protect his defenders in the same way he helped to keep Barcelona's Lionel Messi so quiet in the semifinal.
Trying to become the first coach since Helenio Herrera in 1965 to take the title back to Inter Milan, Mourinho may well move Zanetti out of defense and alongside Cambiasso to nullify the threat of Robben. But such negative thinking might well be his undoing.
If Inter concentrates too much on the Dutch star, Schweinsteiger may well get more room to attack through the center and support the two front men, opening up space for Olic and Mueller to score.
Van Gaal, who won the title in charge of Ajax in 1995, believes his Bayern team is catching up with the very best in Europe.
"Chelsea, Manchester United and Barcelona are the best teams in Europe. Nevertheless we can win the title. Of course, we have had a little bit of luck but I think it was deserved," he said in reference to a controversial goal against Fiorentina and the harsh red card given to Manchester United defender Rafael in the quarterfinal.
"It's also possible that a lower level club wins," he said. "That's sport."