It was not the spectacle that was anticipated, but Inter Milan gave the world a lesson in how to beat Barcelona, pulling out all the stops to emerge with a 3-2 aggregate victory to win a place in this year’s Champions League final.
Even before being reduced to ten men, it was obvious that the Nerrazzuri had come to do one thing – protect their lead. From a Barcelona point of view, there was an unusual lack of urgency and cutting edge. Also, for once Pepe Guardiola’s tactics deserved scrutiny. Until Gerard Pique scored, questions were raised as to the necessity in taking off Zlatan Ibrahimovic. There was certainly logic in going for a different approach by taking off the tall striker for two smaller, quicker attackers in Jeffren Suarez and Bojan Krkic, with the intention of attacking with the ball on the deck and maybe exploiting the wings more productively. However, why did Guardiola remove ‘Ibra’ from the play for these different types of players, before lumping giant centre-back Pique into a centre-forward role fifteen minutes later?
Jose Mourinho savoured the moment emphatically, again courting controversy by invading the pitch at full-time. Explaining the manner of victory, the Inter coach stated: “Barcelona expected to win. They have had an incredible surprise at the San Siro. Then we understood they had fear.”
ITV’s media team revelled in Mourinho’s activity from the moment their programme aired. His every movement was labelled a masterful tactic, such as merely being out on the pitch while his team warmed up. When the Inter coach made a last minute change before kick-off when the already doubtful Goran Pandev was replaced by Christian Chivu, English media tongues were wagging at the thought that this could have been some sort of tactical master stroke by Mourinho. A similar reaction occurred at news of a half-time fracas in the tunnel in which Mourinho was in the thick of – an incident which was almost celebrated by the commentary team. This was all part of the English media’s ongoing obsession with Jose Mourinho – more intense than ever now as English participation in the Champion League is over. Perhaps it was the easiest switch of allegiance to make given how lamented the tactician was at his time at Chelsea. There is little wonder he has coveted a move back to the Premiership, where he would be guaranteed an easier ride from the English Press who pandered to him and hung on his every word in a league that fundamentally lacks characters.
Is he such a tactical genius? Or is he a rule-bending anti-football merchant? The jury is well and truly out, but ultimately, no matter how ugly the victory was, it was Mourinho that came out on top once again. Therefore critics of his style have not much of a case given the success it has brought to date. Barca favourite Xavi Hernandez issued a rallying call on the back of Wednesday’s disappointment, demanding the Blaugrana regroup immediately. The playmaker missed training the day after the game with a niggling injury, but stated to the gathered Press: “We have four finals ahead of us and we have to win all four if want to be champions.” There is a genuine notion that the fans have been let down after providing such a cacophony of support and generating a sense of overwhelming belief in their heroes. This has led to a lingering feeling of disappointment among the squad, an atmosphere that club President Juan Laporta hinted at before emphasising that the players must not let it drag them down for the remaining battles. Soon to return to aid this cause will be influential midfielder Andres Iniesta. Barcelona have missed the added luxury of his guile – perhaps he could have provided the key to unpick the lock of an Inter door that was thoroughly airtight. The first of the four finals Xavi was describing is a trip to El Madrigal to face a resurgent Villareal – a team who mustered the rare achievement of a point at the Camp Nou earlier this season. With the other away fixture left being at Sevilla, there are potentially still points to be dropped by Barca. If the league title is allowed to slip away, then all of a sudden the ‘best team in the world,’ who have had the world drooling over their brilliance this season, could be lamenting a disappointing season come May.