If anyone can knock Lionel Messi off the perch he so elegantly built for himself with his four-goal humiliation of Arsenal on Tuesday night, then that man is Jose Mourinho.
Messi has been hailed as the best player of his generation after his one-man demolition of Arsène Wenger's side. Yet he will find it a much tougher job to repeat the trick in the semi-final against Internazionale, whose manager Mourinho was overlooked for the Barcelona job in the summer of 2008, when the club's board opted instead for the unproven Pep Guardiola.
Mourinho's philosophy is all about the importance of the collective over the individual; Messi embodies the joyous expression of individualism within the context of an outstanding team.
In November last year, Messi was on the bench when Mourinho last came to Barcelona. The Argentine, along with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, watched as Barcelona were comfortable 2-0 winners and he allowed himself a sly grin as an uncomfortable Mourinho was taunted by 90,000 Spaniards inside the Nou Camp.
They sang "Mourinho, go to the theatre," to wind up the Special One. They do not forget the spat between Mourinho and Messi that began in 2006 when the Portuguese coach was still Chelsea manager and had accused a teenage Messi of "play-acting" to get Asier del Horno sent off.
The outburst provoked Messi to pose for photos holding a skull as if he were Hamlet. He also said: "I don't attach any importance to that because we know what he's like, that he likes talking, he likes to say things and heat up the atmosphere."
Mourinho is certain to "heat up the atmosphere" again ahead of the first leg in Milan on 20 April. He was already at it yesterday, promising Inter would be a very different proposition to the negative side that drew 0-0 with Barcelona at San Siro and lost 2-0 at the Nou Camp in the group stages. "Rest assured, this time we'll play completely different," he said. "They will have the advantage of playing the return at the Nou Camp, but we will know how to treat the two matches. This is a mentally different team."
Inter will certainly go into the game well prepared. Mourinho masterminded last month's victory at Chelsea by watching a video of the first leg no fewer than eight times. He will surely pore over the video of Barcelona's 4-1 victory over Arsenal, but he should also study closely the 0-0 stalemate Chelsea managed at the Nou Camp last season, and the 1-1 draw that followed at Stamford Bridge.
The blueprint for how to stop Messi and Barcelona was drawn up by Guus Hiddink last season, during his brief tenure as Chelsea manager. Hiddink ensured Chelsea turned off the supply line to Messi, and by squeezing the space in midfield they managed to frustrate Barcelona to distraction.
It is a tactic that Mourinho is sure to mimic, with Esteban Cambiasso and Thiago Motta likely to be the two defensive midfielders who have to ensure the ball gets to Messi as little as possible. Inter will also want to keep Barcelona mindful of the dangers of being caught on the counter-attack.
Wenger spurned such negative thinking ahead of the quarter-final, and was made to pay for it with a 6-3 aggregate loss that flattered his side.
Mourinho is the master of the two-legged European tie. At the Nou Camp in November, he was cupping his ear to suggest he could not hear the catcalls of 90,000 Barça fans. The time before he had slid on his knees along the touchline to celebrate a goal for Chelsea. He is sure to have something theatrical up his sleeve when he returns. But it will have to be truly spectacular if he is to upstage the brilliance of the man in blue and red wearing the No 10 shirt.Reuse content