For years, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola have been at war.
The spoils? Modern football’s soul.
On one side, there is a disciple of Johan Cruyff who believes in the omnipotence of possession-based football.
On the other, the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ whose first thought is always: how can I stop the opposition?
No fixture encapsulates this era-defining rivalry more than the second leg of the Champions League semi-final between Barcelona and Inter Milan in 2010.
To open our HISTORY LESSONS series, I re-watched the entire game to get a feel for its significance…
Why this game in particular?
To my mind, this game is the only reason Guardiola’s Barcelona didn’t win three consecutive Champions League trophies.
Inter won 3-1 at the San Siro in the first leg but Pedro’s away goal meant a 2-0 win at the Nou Camp would see Barca progress to the final.
Lionel Messi, Xavi and co were accustomed to blowing teams away in Catalonia, but Mourinho was prepared…
The bus was beautifully parked from the moment the line-ups were announced.
Esteban Cambiasso, Thiago Motta and Cristian Chivu screened a back four of Maicon, Walter Samuel, Lucio and Javier Zanetti.
The first sign of the hosts’ unease came after just five minutes when the cameras lingered on Messi instructing Zlatan Ibrahimovic to do something differently.
Five minutes later, the Swede’s shirt ripped after a scuffle with Motta — symbolic perhaps?
The red and blue stripes never truly fitted Ibrahimovic, his cartoonish ego clashed with the Mes que un club ethos.
This was one of his most ineffective games for Barca as Lucio and Samuel played him like fiddle, ushering him into the channels and winning free-kicks through typical Mourinho-taught street smarts.
The enduring image from this game is of Sergio Busquets peeking through his fingers to see if he has successfully conned the referee.
Barca’s midfield fulcrum was palmed away by Motta and, as he is prone to do, exaggerated the contact to make it seem as if the Brazilian-born Italy international had plucked an eye out like the Bride from Kill Bill.
Motta was shown a red card and even Xavi’s eyes widened in surprise, and hope.
Mourinho sarcastically applauded, though it’s not quite clear who his derision was aimed at, the home fans, the officials, both?
Though obviously displeased with the decision, the charisma coming off him is palpable.
His second spell in the Premier League transformed him into a curmudgeonous bore devoid of any redeeming traits.
But in 2010, he was still charming and endearingly enigmatic.
He can’t have been sure his ten men would repel Barca sufficiently, but his sarcastic clap was somehow knowing, almost as if to say: enjoy it now, we’ll see who is smiling at full time.
Stats never tell the whole story, but they provide a decent blurb in this instance.
Xavi alone completed more passes than Inter.
Lucio racked up 14 clearances to Barcelona’s six.
Wesley Sneijder – playmaker extraordinaire who performed so well in 2010 many believe he should have won the Ballon d’Or – completed just 13 passes before making way for Sulley Muntari midway through the second half.
Frustrated with the battalion of Inter players preventing or snuffing out any meaningful Barca invasion into the box, the hosts resorted to shots from unexpected sources.
Busquets was the only outfield player who started for Barca not to register a shot.
All the while, Inter’s troops stuck diligently to their task.
Chivu, the chin straps of his scrum cap writhing with every turn, was responsible for the only shot on Victor Valdes’ goal — a 45-yard free-kick booted contemptuously for a goal kick (see above), daring Barca to go again.
Cambiasso and Zanetti knew when to tackle, when to block, and most importantly, when to foul.
Naturally, Messi was often on the receiving end of the calculated lunges.
In the years since, some have convinced themselves the diminutive No10 was anonymous that fateful night.
This is not strictly true.
In the first half he threatened with incisive dribbles and only Julio Cesar’s fingernails prevented a trademark Messi finish into the bottom corner.
After the restart, with Dani Alves deployed as a right-winger, the Argentinian moved into a central playmaker role where he found space hard to come by as Inter doubled up on him without fail.
Mourinho has since explained he set his side up so that Messi was not able to isolate players one-on-one by ‘putting him in jail’ (see end of article).
However, the Ballon d’Or holder did provide a sumptuous cross for Bojan – who replaced the lacklustre Ibrahimovic – only for the future Stoke forward to head wide when he looked certain to score.
A minute later, Barcelona did finally breach Inter’s defences.
Auxiliary target man Gerard Pique latched onto a Xavi throughball before pivoting in a manner not dissimilar to peak Ibrahimovic to facilitate a simple finish.
Replays showed he may have been offside, though I can not be sure as the stream I watched did not show it from the necessary angle.
The re-energised home fans sensed the injection of momentum and responded by waving their scarves above their heads.
Such was the urgency, the ball boys threw new balls on before the one in play had left the field, twice resulting in the opposite of the desired effect.
Inter responded with some expected sh*thousing.
At one point, Maicon effectively bullied the assistant referee into awarding him a corner midway through Valdes’ run-up for a goal kick.
In the first minute of injury time, it looked as if Bojan had made up for his earlier miss with an emphatic finish into the roof of the net to send Barca through to the final.
But the Nou Camp’s celebrations were quickly dampened when the fans realised Yaya Toure had been penalised for a handball in the build-up.
It was a marginal call, but one that deserved to go the visitors’ way after Motta’s red card and Pique’s goal.
Not long after, the referee blew his whistle to signal the completion of what Mourinho would later describe as his ‘most beautiful defeat’ (Inter won 3-2 on aggregate).
The Portuguese coach could not contain himself at full time, sprinting onto the field with one arm aloft in triumph like Alan Shearer.
Valdes took exception to Mourinho’s gloating and grabbed him by the lapels.
The Special One could not be suppressed — he wriggled free and stood staring to the very top of the stand where the travelling support celebrated not far from the clouds.
It was a moment to savour for Samuel Eto’o too.
The Cameroon international had been traded to Inter as part of the deal to bring Ibrahimovic to Barcelona, despite Eto’o scoring 36 goals in his final season at the Nou Camp.
There was a feeling at the time Guardiola’s imperious Barcelona could not be beaten over two legs.
Mourinho masterminded a defensive masterclass in the Spanish giants’ back garden to prove that theory wrong.
Inter went on to win an historic treble to give Porto’s triumph of 2004 and Chelsea’s record-breaking 2004/05 stiff competition in terms of the legendary coach’s greatest ever achievements.
Inter’s victory over Barcelona was Mourinho getting one over on Guardiola.
It was a victory for organisation, discipline and tactical expertise over what many considered to be a purer approach.
What could have been the Guardiola era, became a duopoly.
And the hundreds of clubs worldwide who follow the blueprints of the market leaders suddenly had a choice between two contrasting philosophies.
For all Mourinho’s rhetoric, this was truly special.