This time there was no triumphant dash down the touchline, no green patches on the knees of his suit from sliding on the Old Trafford turf; instead, Jose Mourinho gave us just brief, subtle gestures of despair. Manchester United can be beaten on certain occasions in the life of a great manager, but it is one hell of a job to tame the beast permanently.
Sir Alex Ferguson's team are in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, having scored the goals last night that they should have scored at San Siro two weeks' previously. In Milan, United produced a performance of brilliance without the goals; last night they had the goals but barely any of the flair and imagination. Winning in those circumstances, we are told, is the work of all great teams.
Ferguson marches on towards five possible trophies; Mourinho's destiny is less certain. At times Mourinho even looked vulnerable as he cast around for a solution in an Inter squad that was plainly inferior to that of United while he was barracked by a home crowd who certainly did not seem like they were in the mood to anoint him Ferguson's successor. United were not at their best but even that was good enough to beat the best Italian football had to offer.
Unlike the United team that succumbed to Mourinho's Porto in 2004, this United side survived the game's trickier moments, especially when Adriano hit the post with a volley before the hour. That was when, on the touchline, Mourinho made a silent plea to the football gods. They were not listening. Something was not right in United's calibration, they were slightly off kilter and out of sync, but they took their chances nonetheless.
The first goal was scored by Nemanja Vidic within four minutes, a goal that will rankle with Mourinho who has said the Serb should have been given a two-match ban for his red card in the Club World Cup final in December rather than the one-match that Uefa decided. United never pressed home that early advantage as Liverpool had done one night earlier and ended the first half on the back foot before Cristiano Ronaldo's goal four minutes after the break settled matters.
Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, Ronaldo and Dimitar Berbatov were a long way from their best but then look what they were up against. Mourinho started the game with Patrick Vieira, he brought on Adriano and he even brought on Luis Figo with his 36-year-old legs to run at Patrice Evra. It was the last desperate gamble of a coach with nothing left in the locker: yesterday's men against the team of the moment.
Most telling in United's performance was yet another clean sheet, their 31st in 49 games so far this season. They needed some luck when Inter twice struck the frame of their goal, Zlatan Ibrahimovic first, then Adriano. The Swedish striker was at his most effective yet against English opposition in the first half and then he faded when Mourinho needed him to win the game in the second half.
Earlier in the day Sepp Blatter had outlined his plans to curtail the power of English football by pushing through quotas limiting the number of foreign players in Europe's top teams. Last night at Old Trafford the Fifa president sat next to the United chief executive, David Gill, for another demonstration of the superiority of English teams in Europe. The irony was there were twice as many Englishmen in United's first XI than there were Italians in Inter's team.
The story of English football's four teams taking half the eight places in the Champions League quarter-finals is simple: they have more money, which allows them to buy better players. When United were vulnerable last night Inter could not hurt them. Ferguson complained later about his team's "practice football" once they had taken the lead, "back-heels, flicks and balls into space" that allowed Inter back into the game, but he did not look like a man who thought he had been close to defeat.
Instead Mourinho went away with a pat on the head and a cheery wave from the man he calls "boss". The Inter coach had picked Mario Balotelli, a striker who was tucked in on the left side of a 4-1-4-1 Inter formation with the intention clearly being that the winger would pick away at John O'Shea, the weak link in United's defence. Within four minutes United had scored.
Vidic's goal had been simple, a corner won by Ronaldo, taken by Ryan Giggs and headed in by the defender, his twisting and turning in the area fooling his marker Vieira. "We started well and I thought that after the first goal we could kill them," said Ferguson. They should have taken control in the same fashion as Liverpool had done one night earlier, but instead they stumbled.
Ibrahimovic's downward header struck the bar and Dejan Stankovic missed a back-post chance that gave Mourinho a glimmer of hope. O'Shea ran into the Inter area on 38 minutes to collect Rooney's precise through ball and surely anyone else would have lifted their shot over the goalkeeper Julio Cesar, or at least glanced up to see Berbatov in space and unmarked.
The luck that had clung to Mourinho in that first visit of his to Old Trafford five years ago – when a Russian linesman had incorrectly ruled out a Scholes goal that would have won the tie for United – deserted the Portuguese coach this time. Inter went in at half-time having dominated the latter part of the half and within four minutes of the restart they were another goal behind. Giggs, brilliant again, dribbled the ball right to left, found Scholes who passed wide to Rooney on the left. Rooney put his cross on Ronaldo's forehead.
Aside from Adriano's volley against the post, Inter simply ran out of ideas in the end. Ronaldo drew a great save from Cesar with a late free-kick late but when the final whistle went, Mourinho quietly got up from his seat and shook Ferguson's hand before departing the scene. Presumably with a resolution that if he wants to win this competition again he will need to get himself back into English football.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Carrick, Scholes (Anderson, 69), Giggs; Berbatov, Rooney (Park, 84). Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Evans, Fletcher, Gibson, Tevez.
Internazionale (4-1-4-1): Cesar; Maicon, Cordoba, Samuel, Santon; Cambiasso; Stankovic (Adriano, 58), Vieira (Muntari, h-t), Zanetti, Balotelli (Figo, 69); Ibrahimovic. Substitutes not used: Toldo, Maxwell, Cruz, Rivas.
Referee: W Stark (Germany).
Champions League Quarter-finalists
Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Liverpool, Villarreal, Manchester United, Arsenal, Barcelona, Porto.
Draw to be made 11am, Friday 20 March, in Nyon, Switzerland.
Quarter-finals to be played 7-8 and 14-15 April.