How Inter's very special plan got the better of Guardiola
Josep Guardiola was not the only decorated coach put in the shade by the performance of Jose Mourinho's
Internazionale team on Tuesday. Arsène Wenger's tactical acumen was also brought into question by Inter's 3-1 win over Barcelona in Milan. Against Wenger's Arsenal Barcelona looked like Gods, against Inter they appeared mortal.
The prime difference was that Mourinho did not try to match Barcelona for flair. Despite being at home his players willingly surrendered territory, allowing Barça to pass in front of them but, with defensive discipline and sheer weight of numbers, made it devilishly difficult to pass between and behind them.
Mourinho deployed two holding players in midfield sitting close to the back four, cramping the space Messi and Xavi like to operate in. While Maicon attacked from right-back so effectively he scored one and made one, Javier Zanetti, on the left, rarely ventured forward. The wide players, Samuel Eto'o and Goran Pandev, tracked back assiduously. This defensive construction only worked fitfully in the first half as Inter sat off their opponents. In the second period though, while being careful not to be drawn out of their shape, they were more prepared to press. Faced with such close attentions Barça's passing was less assured than usual. They still dominated possession but found it hard to play the killer ball.
Circumstances also favoured Inter. The flight ban meant Barça had to endure a 450-mile coach journey and at times they looked "leggy". Barcelona lacked initial sharpness and when Inter upped the tempo after half-time the long-distance travellers found it hard to stay with them.
Then there was the gamesmanship. To Guardiola's annoyance Inter left the grass long and unwatered. The swift passing that characterises Barça's football is more difficult on such a surface.
Wenger, with some justification, would add a third element: luck with injuries. Take Wesley Sneijder, Diego Milito, Eto'o, Walter Samuel and Esteban Cambiasso out of Inter's team (the equivalent of Arsenal missing Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Andrei Arshavin, William Gallas and Alex Song, as they did in Barcelona) and Inter would have struggled.
That, however, is hypothetical. The reality is Inter travel to Spain next week 3-1 ahead. And, it should be noted, Mourinho's tactics did not produce a boring game. It was enthralling as well as absorbing.
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