Barcelona would emerge in the new season as an even superior 2.0 version, whose ball possession rose from the mid-50% range to mid-60%. However, they also dispensed with the forward trinity. Henry withered in his last year in Europe. Meanwhile Guardiola perpetrated one of the worst trades of all time, exchanging with Internazionale Eto’o (for whom he “didn’t have a feeling”), who as one commentator put it had twice come through in the biggest game of all (in 2006 and 2009), plus €49 million for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a Swede who was not the easiest to get along with and as a less mobile target man was completely unsuited to Barca’s natural game. Especially in Italy Ibrahimovic was a terrific forward up to a certain level (i.e. the Champions League), at which point he inexplicably disappeared year after year, unable to influence that highest level.
He had a useful year for Barca but was rendered obsolete by Messi’s incredible scoring record, which prompted Messi to ask Guardiola to play in the middle rather than on the right, to which any sane manager would acquiesce. That left Ibrahimovic, less adaptable than Henry and Eto’o, in no man’s land. Emerging left-forward Pedro, Barca through and through, also had a terrific year (one he would not repeat) that put an end to Henry.
Both cases owed a touch to Barcelona’s xenophobia as a club under Guardiola. The Mes que un club feel (‘More than a club’, the Catalan that Guardiola spoke in press conferences not unrelated to this), which of course gives Barcelona its identity, could also lead to outsiders not fitting into the hyper on-field but mellow off-field ethos. This included Valencia’s David Villa, Ibrahimovic’s replacement the next season, one of Europe’s most consistent forwards and fresh from the 2010 World Cup win with his future teammates, seemingly custom made for Barcelona – but he inexplicably did not make it at Barca either. One cruel and pretentious statement to the press in 2010 disguised as Barca-harmony but probably aimed as a put-down to Ibrahimovic told of how “You can tell who has come through this club by the sound the ball makes when it’s struck,” implying that outsiders didn’t have the same correct technique as the Barcelona players from birth.
Ibrahimovic, a moody off-field personality, did not feel comfortable in a dressing room where the stars like Iniesta and Messi behaved like placid schoolboys (which in all likelihood led to Spain’s Euro 2012 title by a group of players able to remain humble and friendly about their previous achievements, unlike the France of ten years previously). Guardiola likewise could not deal with players who did not fit his quiet mould, making later rumours of him going to Chelsea, a dressing-room jungle of player power if ever there was one, sound like an April Fool’s joke to more sensible observers.
Barcelona won an intriguing quarter-final against their previous spiritual brethren, Arsenal, and their Barca-at-heart central midfielder Cesc. The first leg was an incredible match. Barcelona took Arsenal to the cleaners in the first half in England – but didn’t score! One sequence had Arsenal blocking three shots on the line in a ten-second period. Ibrahimovic put it right after halftime with two goals, but Arsenal winger Theo Walcott inspired a two-goal comeback after Arsenal had generally been thrashed. Messi scored four goals in Barcelona, putting the tie easily to bed and leaving the commentators reaching for the superlatives.
Jose Mourinho and the half-season wonders
Over at Inter, Eto’o was slotted on the right attacking wing by none other than Jose Mourinho, whom Inter had hired to finally take some steps in Europe. Inter in 2010 won their fourth Italian title in a row but it took Mourinho a year and a half of recruitment to finally mould a team that could compete in the Champions League. Mourinho worked with Wesley Sneijder that year until he was the attacking central mid of his dreams, and Argentine forward Diego Milito was a one-year wonder who crowned his prolific 2010 with the two goals in the winning Champions League final. However, the strength of the team, which featured no Italian players but four Argentines, was its extreme discipline.
Inter, after an indifferent Champions League group stage that flirted with elimination, fronted Chelsea in the second round, the type of tie that Chelsea had won loads of times in the recent past. Inter went to England with a fragile 2-1 lead and shut the door. Veteran Brazilian centre back Lucio stuck to Drogba, each member of the team did his specific job and for once Chelsea could not find an answer. Ten minutes from time Sneijder sent Eto’o free, who trademark toe-poked past Cech.
In April 2010 an Icelandic volcano with an unpronounceable name erupted and grounded airplane flights right across Europe. Barcelona were forced into an old-fashioned bus trip all the way to Milan for their semi-final against Internazionale, the defining confrontation of the year. The bus trip may have cost Barca winning a second consecutive Champions League title, which fascinatingly no team has ever achieved in the modern era. It was of course a reunion of Ibrahimovic and Eto’o, the trade that had dominated the year, playing for the opposite clubs from which they had achieved so much. They had met in the group stages months ago and a decimated Barca had still won easily.
They wouldn’t this time. It was business as usual early for Barca, but Inter gradually recovered from the early goal to slowly work themselves back in. A ball through the defence found Sneijder alone at the back post, and he had time to steady himself and drill in.
After halftime Inter played like champions against the team of the era. Brazilian right-back Maicon, O Negão Fortão, one Brazilian remarked to me, the powerful black dude, found himself in. He controlled and then touched the ball home, two touches without letting the ball drop. Ten minutes later a chip forward reached two Inter players who had broken the offside trap. The first header was off target but bounced up perfectly for the second of them, a probably offside Milito, to put the second header in at point-blank range.
Mourinho had drilled his players for the return match. Inter played an almost perfect all-out defence at Camp Nou guarding their 3-1 lead. Roberto Gotta, an Italian correspondent, marvelled at the contrariness of the Inter players who played purely to hold their positions through 90 minutes and to in fact purposely give the ball away as any attacks would compromise their positioning. This went against the instinct of every sportsperson around. Even Eto’o on the right played like a defender working to hold his position instead of as the genius goal scorer he was, with surprising determination. His trade bait Ibrahimovic made no headway at all for Barca and he was substituted in his last major appearance for the club. Inter’s 1960s-style defending succeeded without drama against a powerless Barcelona until five minutes from time, when Barca defender Gerard Pique pivoted 360 to score a gem of a goal. In the last minute an Inter clearance rebounded from Yaya Toure’s stomach and was swiftly worked to Bojan Krkic to score the ‘winning’ goal, but Toure’s block was considered a handball and Inter had prevailed 3-2 on aggregate. It wasn’t a handball, and given Milito’s offside goal one might think Inter had had some luck in pulling off the win against the impossible opponents, but Inter had deserved it and Barcelona were the recipients of some incredible breaks in their 2009 and 2011 victories, so it goes around and comes around. Mourinho had a scalp over his nemesis with his new, hitherto unknown team, Eto’o had his vindication and we had been given the definitive proof on field of the wisdom of the trade. Barcelona showed a crude lack of class by turning the ground’s sprinkler system on the celebrating Inter.
In a mirror image of 2004, Mourinho walked out on his club the second they won the Champions League final, 2-0 over Bayern Munich with another disciplined, almost robotic defensive display. He had found ultimate success with the two ‘minor’ teams he had coached, Porto and Inter, while he would not with the famously moneyed-up Chelsea and Real Madrid, the club to which he was now headed. Behind him the crack team he had assembled at Inter withered. ‘Scorched earth’, they began to remark about him, not one to plan things for a club’s long-term future; although his mark on this Inter team, the only one to derail Barcelona in three seasons, was undeniable.