There are no prizes in football for artistic merit, none for style, technique or persuading all Europe to swoon at your feet. That was reaffirmed last night as, in a performance that had their coach's imprint all over it, Internazionale corralled Lionel Messi and took a significant first-leg advantage over Barcelona after a riveting match in San Siro.
Behind after 19 minutes Inter rallied, goals from Wesley Sneijder, Maicon and Diego Milito putting Pedro Rodriguez's early strike into perspective. The second leg, a week today, promises to be a special one. Yes, it is Jose Mourinho who coaches Inter. The former Chelsea coach was hired with one brief: to win the Champions League. His predecessor, Roberto Mancini, had won successive Serie A titles but that was not enough.
It is more than 40 years since Inter won the continent's premier club trophy. In that time they have fielded such attacking talents as Dennis Bergkamp, Youri Djorkaeff, Roberto Carlos, Liam Brady and Jürgen Klinsmann. None has delivered the most coveted prize, which the club they share a stadium with have now won seven times.
So it is back to the past. Helenio Herrera, the man who popularised catenaccio defence, guided Inter to their two European Cup successes in the mid-Sixties. Mourinho, another man who puts results before aesthetics, has been hired to emulate him.
Last night Mourinho took a significant step towards doing so. In their fluorescent orange change strip Barcelona may have looked like a platoon of stewards detailed to spoil someone's fun, but that task belonged to the men in black and blue. In days of yore that would have been the colour of Messi's legs after encountering a Serie A defence but in the modern era Inter must use more sophisticated methods. Mourinho, as he did successfully at Stamford Bridge, deployed the strikers, Samuel Eto'o and Goran Pandev, in wide positions in an attempt to pin back Barcelona's full-backs. A pair of holding midfielders, Esteban Cambiasso and Thiago Motta, were stationed in front of the back four; and there was plenty of experience – only Maicon was under 26 years old.
As against Arsenal in the previous round Barcelona dominated possession but this time they created few chances. The difference was Inter ceded them possession, space and territory, drawing back the wagons and seeking to hit on the counter-attack. After 14 hours on a coach, plus an overnight stop, to get to Milan, Barcelona certainly knew they were the away team, but to an observer they looked like the home one.
Messi, in a roving role behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, often a deep one, was quiet. However, Barcelona are not a one-man team. Concentrate on Messi and you risk leaving Xavi too much space, or Ibrahimovic, or Maxwell and Pedro.
It was the latter two who combined for the opening goal after 19 minutes. Lucio and Walter Samuel were drawn into a misunderstanding by Barça's incessant pressing and gave the ball away cheaply. Barça kept it, passed it, then released Maxwell down the left. The Brazilian glided past Cambiasso, Maicon and Lucio before cutting the ball back for Pedro. The Canary Islander made a tricky finish look easy.
Inter could have despaired, but they drew confidence from having produced the first chance despite just a soupçon of possession: Milito missing from a narrow angle after Victor Valdes could only parry Eto'o's 20-yard shot. They also created the better chances after Pedro's goal. Barcelona did not heed the warnings. On the half-hour Eto'o found space on the right and though he scuffed his cross Milito kept his head to find Sneijder, alone with the goal gaping. The Dutchman tapped in.
Barça, however, remained clearly superior until the break when Inter ran into Mourinho's version of "the hairdryer". That much was obvious from the way Inter pressed when the second period opened. It helped that they were given a further reason to up their work-rate when Pandev and Milito combined to set up Maicon, the full-back showing quick feet to turn in Pandev's pass.
After Messi finally stretched Julio Cesar, Inter's pressing paid off. Motta stole possession from Messi, the ball came to Maicon and, though Sneijder fluffed his header, Milito, from a suspiciously offside position, headed in.
Barça should have narrowed the lead. Dani Alves was fouled in the box by Sneijder but the Portuguese referee booked the Brazilian for diving, then Gerard Pique somehow failed to finish following a corner. Instead the show moves to Catalonia, with Mourinho ascendant.
Josep Guardiola warned that, in Spain, the grass would be slick, not slow, and added: "In Barcelona 90 minutes is a long time."
Internazionale (4-2-3-1): Julio Cesar; Maicon (Chivu 74), Lucio, Samuel, Zanetti; Cambiasso, Motta; Eto'o, Sneijder, Pandev (Stankovic 56); Milito (Balotelli 75). Substitutes not used Orlandoni (gk), Cordoba, Muntari, Materazzi.
Barcelona (4-2-3-1): Valdes; Dani Alves, Pique, Puyol, Maxwell; Xavi, Busquets; Pedro, Messi, Keita; Ibrahimovic (Abidal 62). Substitutes not used Pinto (gk), Marquez, Bojan, Henry, Milito, Touré.
Referee O Benquerenca (Portugal).
Lionel Messi has played so well for Barcelona this season that at times it may have appeared to the opposition they were facing 12 men.
Last night in the San Siro the Catalan side appeared to again be deploying the extra man tactic, although that illusion was more down to the similarity of referee Bartolo Benquerenca's dark yellow top to Barca's lurid bright orange efforts. Rosario's favourite son was never able to replicate his form of previous weeks, shackled superbly from the start by the Internazionale midfield, and in particular countryman Esteban Cambiasso.
The first time he picked up the ball he was immediately surrounded by three Inter markers, getting past the first two before being brought down by Cambiasso. On the few occasions Messi was able to wriggle free toward goal, Inter centre-backs Walter Samuel and Lucio snuffed out the danger. His evening became more productive after the interval, creating a goal three minutes in, albeit for the home side.
He gave the ball away in his own half, with Jose Mourinho's side moving forward with purpose and ending with Maicon putting Inter ahead.
No doubt irked by his indiscretion, Messi set about trying to make amends, cutting in from the right and unleashing a left-foot shot which Julio Cesar dealt with. He later went close with a free-kick as the away side turned up the pressure in search of a valuable second away goal, Mourinho left watching as the winger foraged away on the right-hand side. Messi has never scored against a Mourinho side in six games.