Inter 3-1 Barcelona is part of 90min’s 20 Greatest Matches of the Decade series. Follow the rest of the series over the course of the next week.
Inter vs. Barcelona. Jose Mourinho vs. Pep Guardiola. The pragmatist vs. the idealist. Defence vs. attack. The ‘bus’ vs. tiki taka.
That was the second leg of Inter’s UEFA Champions League semi final clash.
A game in which Mourinho’s Inter players would ‘sweat blood’ to ensure I Nerazzurri would reach their first European Cup final since 1967, and continue their historic march toward the first treble in calcio history.
A game that Mourinho would later call the “greatest moment” of his career.
A game that would – in many ways – define how the divisive manager would be thought of in the ensuing years. For this was the game during which Jose Mourinho became (for better or worse) synonymous with ‘parking the bus’ or, in less rudimentary terms, spoiling games with a low-defensive block.
Oh, and it’s also the game after which the Inter manager would run around Camp Nou’s hallowed turf à la Alan Shearer.
BUT, it’s not the game that this article is about.
Today, we’re discussing the other game between Inter and Barca that year – the first leg of that infamous UEFA Champions League semi final.
A very, very, very different game of football. In every conceivable way.
Yes, it was still Inter vs. Barcelona, still Jose Mourinho vs. Pep Guardiola, and still the pragmatist vs. the idealist, however it most certainly wasn’t defence vs. attack or the ‘bus’ vs. tiki taka.
As on 20th April 2010, Inter took the game to Barcelona.
And if there was ever a time to do so, to go almost blow-for-blow with one of the greatest teams of all time, it was the 20th April 2010; after La Blaugrana had endured a near 1,000km bus trip as a result of flight cancellations due to an Icelandic volcanic ash cloud (the same ash cloud that prevented Blackburn Rovers from signing Robert Lewandowski…something which is ALWAYS worth a mention).
Jose Mourinho devised a rather simple, two-fold, plan for I Nerazzurri to beleaguer a leggy, likely stiff as a board, Barca side at San Siro:
1) ‘Gabbia’ Lionel Messi – a four-man ‘cage’ which would restrict Messi’s ability to effect the game.
2) Attack the space left by the marauding Dani Alves and Maxwell with pace and precision.
So, in other words: Jose Mourinho’s plan was the same as every other manager’s plan when their team faced Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
So yes, it was pretty simple plan.
But as exemplified by Barcelona’s haul of six trophies (UEFA Champions League, La Liga, Copa del Rey, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup and Supercopa de Espana) in 2009 alone, it was a rather difficult one to execute.
In fact, very, very, very rarely did the first part of the plan – stopping Messi – seem even remotely possible. Not least in 2010 when the mercurial number 10 was (arguably) at the peak of his powers, with Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez – the two greatest Spanish footballers of all time – feeding the ball to him at will and with Barcelona’s greatest ever coach building one of the greatest football teams of all time around him.
Somehow, through immense mental fortitude, unwavering concentration and a will to sacrifice oneself for the cause, Inter found a way to stifle Messi.
The number ten would limber through the game, with his offensive threat quelled by the fact that, when he received the ball, he was instantly hounded by a group of wily – and hugely talented – group of players hellbent on not giving him an inch of space to work his magic in.
So, part one of the plan executed to perfection. Nice one lads.
But to actually beat Barcelona, the second phase of the plan also needed to be executed. And that was, as you can probably guess,also easier said than done…
…Especially after Pedro had given Barca a one-goal lead inside the first 20 minutes.
While it was difficult to stop Messi, it was almost impossible to stop him AND not simultaneously negate your own ability to ‘hurt’ (as Mourinho put it) Barcelona in the offensive third.
Therefore, the actualisation of the second part of Mourinho’s plan would require unfathomable levels of confidence and quality; two things Inter’s soon-to-be treble-winning side, luckily, had in abundance.
Undeterred by Pedro’s early goal, I Nerazzurri – with Messi ‘caged’ – bombed forward at every opportunity, exploiting the space left by the ever-marauding Dani Alves and Maxwell with astonishing precision.
“We were educated to attack the spaces behind them”, said Mourinho, when discussing the game with Coaches’ Voices.
“So in this situation, we always had lots of players ready to attack the space behind both full-backs.”
The space left by Alves would be exploited for Wesley Sneijder’s 30th minute equaliser, as the-then best player in the world (he 100% should’ve won the 2010 Ballon d’Or) found himself free as a bird on the left of the Barca penalty area, from where he would drill the ball into the bottom corner. Sneijder would – of course – run the length of the touchline to celebrate with Mourinho.
At the start of the second half, the space left by Maxwell on the other flank allowed Diego Milito to feed the ball through to Maicon, who subsequently slipped the ball under Victor Valdes to make it 2-1.
Then 15 minutes later, the win was sealed by Diego Milito, who – you guessed it – exploited space left at the back post by Maxwell to head home Inter’s third.
Inter would hold onto their 3-1 lead throughout the remainder of the game at San Siro, and then hold Barcelona to one goal at Camp Nou to seal a place in the UEFA Champions League final – which they would, as you already know, go on to win at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Jose Mourinho and Inter had executed a simple, yet seemingly impossible, plan.
They had stopped Messi.
They had stopped Barcelona.
They had won.
And while Mourinho may cite the second leg as the “greatest moment” of his career, and the game that will define his memory more than any other, Inter’s 3-1 win over Barcelona at San Siro was the best any of his teams has ever – and probably will ever – play.
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