If there ever was a complete antithesis for Pep Guardiola’s possession based style of football, then it would be Jose Mourinho. The complete polar opposite to Pep Guardiola in terms of footballing philosophy. While one advocates for playing the game as beautiful as possible, for suffocating his opponents through sheer possession alone, the other is fine with playing 90% of a game without the ball, and still coming away with the win. These two titans of the game, undoubtedly two of the greatest managers of all time, came head to head in the semi-finals of the 09/10 Uefa Champions League. Jose Mourinho’s reigning Serie A champions came up against Pep Guardiola’s reigning treble winners, the winners of the last year’s edition of the UCL. The match up was one of epic proportions, arguably the best club side of all time, up against arguably the best defensive coach of all time.
Jose Mourinho’s Inter lined up in a 4-3-1-2 of sorts, with Milito and Eto’o leading the line, Sneijder in the hole behind them, a midfield three of Cambiasso, Pandev and Motta, with a back line of Maicon as the RB, Lucio and Samuel as the CB’s and the legendary Zanetti as the LB, with Julio Caesar in goal.
Pep’s Barcelona lined up in their iconic 4-3-3 with Valdes manning the goal, a back four of Alves, Pique, Puyol and Maxwell. The midfield was lacking a key cog though, with Iniesta out due to a muscle injury, and Seydou Keita took his place. The other two midfielders were Xavi and Busquets. Up front, Messi played as a false-9 with Pedro and Zlatan either side of him.
From the off, Inter Milan’s game plan seemed to be clear. Despite lining up in a 4-3-1-2, they reverted to a 4-2-3-1 when defending. Milito stayed up front as the sole striker, while Eto’o moved to the right wing, and Pandev to the left. Inter employed two very specific pressing traps from the start. As long as Valdes or the center backs had the ball in Barcelona’s defensive third, they did not press. However, whenever the ball was received by a fullback, the winger of the same side and the closest midfielder pressed the fullback. The other pressing trap they used was they did not press high up centrally, but whenever Barcelona were within 40 yards of the Inter goal, they raised their pressing intensity.
Sneijder was also given a specific task; to mark Xavi in the center of the pitch. On multiple occasions, Sneijder moved away from the play to follow Xavi.
On the attacking front, Inter aimed to either find Sneijder as an outlet immediately after winning the ball back, or tried to find Eto’o or Milito running in behind the defense with a long ball. As a consequence, Inter were caught offside 4 times in just the opening half hour.
For the first 18 minutes or so, Inter Milan completely nullified Barcelona’s threat. The only time in which Barcelona seemed to start a genuine attack was when Messi dribbled past 3 players, but was brought down by Samuel on the edge of the box. However, a free kick was not given. Inter Milan however managed to create some chances, with Lucio getting on the end of a free kick and heading wide, while Milito had a golden opportunity to score when a saved Eto’o shot fell right to him in the box, but he sent an absolutely horrible shot so wide that it was picked up by Maxwell near the corner flag.
However, in the 19th minute, in Barcelona’s first real attack, they scored. Xavi, Messi and Maxwell kept a hold of the ball through a series of nice passes on the left wing. When the fullback was dragged inside because of Keita moving inside, Maxwell made a run in behind and was found by Xavi. Beating Cambiasso for pace and running to the byline, Maxwell cut the ball back for Pedro to score from near the penalty spot.
Despite the goal, Inter Milan did not change their methods, and continued employing the same counter-attacking tactics. In the 26th minute, Inter won the ball back high as a result of their wide pressing and Milito had another great opportunity to score, but sent his shot just wide.
In the 29th minute, a long ball found Eto’o on the right wing. He sent in a cross that was held up by Milito in the center of the box, and then played into the path of Sneijder, who was completely unmarked and scored.
After the equalizer, Barcelona stepped up a bit, with Messi and Dani Alves coming into their own. Alves made a number of overlapping runs, but they were tracked well my Pandev. Messi on the other hand gave Inter all sorts of trouble with his constant roaming and dribbling, with Inter having to resort to fouling him to stop him. However, despite Messi’s movement, Inter managed to maintain their shape, and were not threatened for the most part.
The second half started differently as Inter started pressing much higher. Retaining the same 4-2-3-1 shape, Inter began pressing high up in the opposing half, and came close to scoring immediately from the start when a good team move culminated in Milito playing a cross that Pandev just missed.
Two minutes later, Motta won the ball back from Messi in the Inter half, and Zanetti passed it to Pandev, who then proceeded to calmly burst past 3 Barcelona players and carried the ball into the Barcelona half and played a through ball into the box, which Milito collected and played into the on rushing Maicon, who scored. In classic counter attacking fashion, Jose Mourinho’s team had taken the lead.
Inter kept up with the high press, and became much more physical in their approach, constantly giving away fouls. For both teams, their talismanic Argentines caused their opponents the most trouble, Milito with his constant runs in behind the Barca defense, and Messi with his dribbling. However, Milito’s supporting cast, especially Pandev and Sneijder were on top form, with Pandev acting as a two way force, contributing in attack and defense on the left hand side, while Messi’s supporting cast were no where to be seen, with Ibrahimovic being completely nullified throughout the game.
Mourinho made the first change of the game, bringing on Stankovic for Pandev. After the change, Inter resorted to a 4-1-4-1 while defending, with Cambiasso operating between the defensive line and midfield, and Sneijder moving to the left wing.
In the sixtieth minute, after a wave of Inter attacks, Barcelona attempted to counter, but Motta won the ball back expertly with a slide tackle, and played the ball wide to Maicon who sent in a cross. Sneijder botched his header, sending it straight to the ground, but the ball looped forward and Milito tapped in from close range. Inter 3-1 Barcelona.
After the goal, Barca brought on Abidal for Zlatan, with Maxwell slotting into the vacated left wing position.
Inter eased off on their pressing a bit after the goal, and were content with defending compactly in their own half. Barcelona held most of the ball for the remaining 30 minutes, but failed to create any real chances besides one pedro shot from inside the box, which was blocked by Samuel. Inter also failed to create much of an attacking threat as Milito was taken off for Balotelli, and Eto’o failed to make the type of runs Milito had been making, after he took up Milito’s spot.
Balotelli did produce a moment of magic in the 76th minute, intercepting a pass and flicking the ball over Abidal, then flicking it over Xavi with his heel.
As the match wore on, Inter were pushed further and further back into their own half, and ended up creating a 4 man wall around the box, with a 3 man midfield right in front of the box. Only Eto’o and Sneijder remained near the half way line as Inter camped around their box. Messi was kept in check by Cambiasso, while all other Barcelona threats were nullified by sheer number.
Inter managed to see off the game with no further goals for either side. In the end, Jose Mourinho’s defensive football won the game, and eventually the tie, as he completely nullified Barcelona’s attacking threat with a number of smart pre-planned methods and in-game changes. Milito and Cambiasso were far and away the best players on the pitch, with Milito scoring one and assisting two, while Cambiasso expertly screened his defense. Despite being labelled as an advocate of “ugly” football, Mourinho’s team played anything but ugly. With fast breaking counter attacks and ingenious pressing traps, Mourinho’s Inter defeated the great Barcelona, and would later go on to win the tournament. The special one had prevailed.