The clash between Italian title holders Inter Milan and Spanish champions Barcelona in the semifinals of the European Champions League has been a mouthwatering match up, as two giants of the world game vie over 180 minutes of football to earn the privilege of an appearance in the lucrative final.
On the face of it, reigning champions Barcelona were favorites to progress. Prior to the first-leg semi, the Catalans boasted a fifteen game unbeaten streak and in star player Lionel Messi, had one of the world's best players performing at the top of his game. The manner of the Spanish side's recent victories – bar a 0-0 draw with city rivals Espanyol – had been awesome in their attacking verve and domination of possession.
In Pep Guardiola, Barcelona also have a coach who is one of the brightest rising stars in soccer. In his debut season in charge the 39-year-old captured a grand total of six trophies, three of which completed an unprecedented treble for the Camp Nou based side, when the La Liga title, the Copa Del Rey and the European Champions League title were secured in the same campaign.
The former Barca midfielder has seemingly proved to be the perfect choice to lead one of the biggest clubs in the world, his tactical outlook matching the ethos of a side traditionally famed for its attacking and aesthetically-pleasing brand of football.
As well as proving tactically astute, adept in his dealings with the media and an able motivator of men, Guardiola has not shied away from making big decisions. The move to let leading goalscorer Samuel Eto'o leave his squad as a bargaining chip in the transfer of Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Inter, baffled many around the world – why would you give the lethal Cameroonian to a potential rival?
But Guardiola's belief was that, to maintain the momentum of the glories of last season, the head of a major figure had to roll; a demonstration that no one player was too big to sacrifice for the cause of communal progress. So far he has not been proved wrong in his thinking.
Maybe fate then had a large part to play in Barca's 3-1 defeat in the Giuseppe Meazza stadium – with the fallout from the recent volcano eruption forcing the side to travel to northern Italy by energy-sapping road rather than air – or maybe it was something else, namely a vintage performance by the master coach Jose Mourinho.
Mourinho is the chalk to Guardiola's cheese. A former winner of the Champions League with Porto, the coach who guided Inter to the Serie A title last season has been no less successful, having previously guided English Premier League side Chelsea to back-to-back titles.
Where Guardiola is open with the press Mourinho is, at times, positively hostile and notoriously provocative, displaying a Machiavellian approach to gaining any psychological edge possible over his opponents. Pep has made his name with a pressing, goal-hungry style of football which promotes creative freedom; Jose prefers prosaic defending and organized authority first from his machine-like teams. Inter maybe Italy's top-scoring side but the foundations of the team are built on not conceding.
Before being drawn together in the semis of 2010, the sides had met four times previously in European competition. Inter – aiming to make their first European Cup final in 38 years – had never scored a goal against the Spaniards let alone won a game. Despite this Mourinho masterminded a superb 3-1 victory in front of the Nerazzurri home crowd.
The tie hangs in the balance with Inter having to defend a two-goal advantage against one of the best attacking sides there is – so who will prevail Guardiola the great or Mourinho the master? Either way, the mental chess game that will be played out by two of the most intriguing coaches in the game will prove fascinating.