For a few moments Barcelona thought they were back on the high road of football history but soon enough the brilliant late goal of Gerard Pique was just a haunting flash of hope too late in the night of Jose Mourinho.
This was not the vindication of the beautiful Barça but another example f how you just cannot make too tight a corner for the Special One.
He lost Thiago Motta, a key element in his planned spoiling operation, but if it seemed like a shocking early blow at the time, Mourinho turned it into something around which he could once again show his ability to shape any situation to his own advantage.
Now everyone knows his reward. It is to be the man touched by destiny, the man every club of ambition in the football world wants for the certainty of his impact.
Motta had chastised Barcelona before the game for their diving tendency, saying it was the dark side of the team who have so often enchanted the football world. What he said to himself after almost languidly sticking his hand in the face of Sergi Busquets and earning a red card long before halfway in arguably the most important challenge of his career beggared professional speculation, especially as he had already picked up a yellow for chopping down Barcelona's Dani Alves.
Naturally, Mourinho immediately fixed the blame on the pressure being applied to Belgian referee Frank de Bleeckere by the 96,000 crowd. He turned to the vast terraces and applauded, ironically.
Meanwhile, Motta appeared to be attempting to throttle Busquets, whose principal crime for the less committed observer was his appalling peek from between his fingers before leaping up to celebrate the fact that his half-cocked assailant had been banished. This sort of thing was not supposed to be on the agenda, well at least not so prominently, on the night when Barça were obliged to reach out for the very best of their game to pull back two goals and fight their way through to a second straight European coronation, this time, deliciously, in the Bernabeu home of the hated Real Madrid.
For Mourinho, though, it seemed like less of a catastrophe than an opportunity to display his competitive wit and ability to inject himself into the heart of a most controversial affair. He had already made one move which whiffed of tactical skulduggery during the warm-up, changing his announced team when attacker Goran Pandev was replaced by defender Christian Chivu, without the former receiving any attention from the Internazionale medical team. Was it a little trick from the Special One? If it was, his sardonic expression said there was quite a bit more from where it came.
Some of it was being transmitted to Chivu by Mourinho from outside the technical area, an infraction which prompted a brief lecture from the referee. Mourinho listened with something like grave deference. Inside, though, it was reasonable to believe he was glowing with the possibility of one of his most striking triumphs.
He had, after all, already injected an extra defender and there were times when that seemed almost a luxury, such was the assurance with which his men dropped back and invited Barça to do their best. Though not one Italian staffed Internazionale's defensive barricades, or nominal attack, there unfolded a budding example of the nation's defensive genius. That may have been stating it a little highly because if the defiance against the world's most explosive team was filled with many of the most cynical devices, it was also true that instead of producing their best, Barça could deliver pretty much only their worst for most of a second half of wrenching tension.
In the first half Messi had left two defenders in his wake, quite wondrously, and drawn a superb save from Julio Cesar. After the break Bojan Krkic, replacing the dismal Zlatan Ibrahimovic, mis-headed quite the best chance of the game. But the rest, right up to the moment Pique produced his moment of brilliant penetration, one that mocked all the efforts of his hugely celebrated attacking colleagues, was mostly desperate, mostly forlorn.
Mourinho grew and grew on the touchline and Barça, the sublime Barça, dwindled before our eyes. Messi was at times supremely patient, but the time for patience had passed. It was a time for supreme artistry, for something cold and withering and the more his coach Josep Guardiola beseeched the heavens for such a moment, the more Mourinho's men raised their defiance against the notion that Barça were a team destined to challenge for one of the highest places in the history of football.
Internazionale held the line and Mourinho, naturally, ran across the field where he had once been marginalised as a mere translator. Here, this night, he had come back to a place of torment and made it his own. As he had, it has to be said, so much of the rest of European football.
Few coaches have ever had so many choices, so much undisputed belief in their powers of alchemy and sheer, winning devilment. It was supposed to be the night when Barcelona came back to life. But Mourinho was never inclined to accept that. It was his night, his resurrection and now he is just one game away from his finest moment in the stadium of Real Madrid.
He is likely to win the Champions League now. We cannot doubt for a second that Real, the richest of clubs, will also be delighted to throw him their keys.Reuse content