Inter supremo's obsession outweighs magic of Messi
IT IS not over yet, but for one night at least the Special One was wearing a suit, not boots. The eclipse of Barcelona that few thought possible was delivered by the obsessive from Portugal, who not only tied temporarily the feet of Lionel Messi, but eclipsed the coach of the moment, Pep Guardiola.
One suspects the latter pleased Jose Mourinho more than the former. Mourinho promised that this would be a team effort, that none would be set the task alone of subordinating Messi. Though Barcelona were the first to show, Inter fell back on the time-honoured Mourinho reflex of industry and brotherhood and fashioned arguably the result of the season.
There will be some who lay the fault of this uncharacteristic Catalan collapse at the mouth of a volcano 2,000 miles to the north. But that would be to understate Mourinho's flair for the big night.
This stage was supposed to be Messi's to light. Not in this theatre. One assumed the bus used by Barcelona, who retraced the steps of Hannibal -- son of Hamilcar Barca, incidentally -- on wheels, not elephants, across the Pyrenees into Italy, would be of the magic variety given the passengers inside.
It was a comfort to those who travel the world in cargo holds to reflect on the privations imposed on a guy earning £200,000 a week by a journey executed at the back of a bus, and to a coach who came into this game under some scrutiny. He needed Messi to retreat into the chorus line.
Despite the triumph over Chelsea in the first knock-out stage and CSKA in the quarter-final, the past month has not yielded what it might for Inter Milan in Serie A. Two draws and a defeat have seen them concede top billing to Roma. Mourinho needed a result. Barcelona were held by Espanyol in La Liga, yet none question the validity and direction of Guardiola's work.
He has stiffened the Barca template with a Mourinho-like addiction to work-rate and intensity without sacrificing the commitment to attack.
The eye is glued to the geometry of the footwork yet just as important to outcomes is the limitless running of Messi, Xavi Hernandez and the rest of the troupe. Dani Alves spends more time in the final third than Theo Walcott and he is the full-back.
A greater part of Barcelona's beauty is the attitude they convey. For all the art on display there is an there is nothing artful about Guardiola's creation. They appear to be enjoying the pageant as much as we are.
The only commodity Barcelona cannot offer is surprise. You know the storm is coming. Mourinho has made this element his own. He will work any margin to get a result, a feature that turned Samuel Eto'o into a right winger against Chelsea. That same deployment of aggressive offense was reprised here with Inter giving Barcelona nothing.
In the suppressed environment that is today's Serie A, the San Siro barely attracts 50,000 through its doors. On nights like these the traffic builds in Rome. There was a sense that Inter were doing the work of the whole of Italy, if not Europe, in taking on the challenge presented by the pre-eminent club side in the world, and a player regarded as great as any to have played the game.
Messi does not need silverware to substantiate his legend. There is no World Cup Winners' medal required to augment what is evident to the naked eye.
Messi dwells in a space and a time all his own, commanding our attention in the manner of all those who have in them what we do not. Whether it be beauty, intelligence, athleticism, or the voice of Caruso, there are some among us to whom we all defer. Messi is that man, a special one who stands alone, even in the company of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.
The standards set by Messi and this group of Barcelona players are such that there is no sense of disappointment at the absence of the English in this particular Champions League four -ball. Which one of their flawed ensembles could contend with the Catalans? They ripped through Arsenal without drawing breath. In the past 12 months they have seen off Chelsea and Manchester United. It is almost a mercy that the job of subordinating them last night fell to another.
Mourinho said 'bring it on' in the manner of a grave digger invited to work the night shift in a church in Transylvania. But Mourinho craves the big stage, and an opportunity to upstage. And this was it.
For English observers there was something of the early Seventies about this experience. Compelled by failings and circumstance to look on from afar they sat awestruck at the wondrous geometry set out in a barely comprehensible whirl of Orange shirts.
Way back then it was Holland and Johan Cruyff that pinned them to the sofa. Now it is the sons of Cruyff at the club for which he played and managed, Barcelona, who are resetting the parameters that define total football.
The Dutch ended up potless in 1974. Barca have a second chance. They peppered the Inter line in the final quarter suggesting that in a week's time the future might yet be orange.(© Daily Telegraph, London)