The moment was finally here.
All the hype, the glitz and the air surrounding this match-up came down to this very moment. It was all square after the first leg, though United would have thought that they had the slightest of advantages going into this game. However, they should have known that this thin figment of hope was a double edged sword which could fall either way.
And who else but Mourinho would be waiting in the wings to capitalize on the most trivial of mistakes that could tilt the game in Inter's favor. Inter and Mourinho went into this one, knowing fully well that a severe backlash by the fans and the media would be on the cards—the Italian and the British alike, if they failed to qualify.
United started with an attacking, flexible and malleable 4-4-2 with Giggs playing either on the left flank or as a second striker just behind Berbatov. The starting line-up was predictable, with Park Ji Sung the only notable absentee who had been confined to the bench, ironically the only one missing from the starting eleven prediction I made a week ago in my last article.
Ferguson clearly choosing to stick with experience rather than youthful exuberance with the average age of his side at 29. After all, Giggs and Scholes starting games together has not been the norm this season.
Someone had to be sacrificed—Nani was not even considered, and rightly so. He along with Tevez have been restricted to cup games, albeit Tevez deserves far more than the young Portuguese.
So that left Park as the only true contender for the bench. The Korean skipper has been the true model of a team player, sacrificing for the time each time he is called upon.
Apart from this aberration, the only concern was Berbatov, who had hurt himself during training. He however seemed to have shaken off the strain to start the game. So, finally—On your marks, get set and blow... well that was the referee's whistle.
First Half - Struck by lightening, struck on 4'
Mourinho would have liked to settled down in the customized and comfortable Audi seats in the dug-out before his side were struck by lightening, as he stood still in the technical area. It was just four minutes into the game and the Red Devils had already drawn the first blood. Mourinho would have dreaded seeing the back of Inter's goal bulge, and that is exactly what happened.
It was a soft goal to concede—first, the goal having come from a set-piece and second, man-marking on the post was missing. Two fundamental mistakes cost Inter a goal, one of the most disciplined teams of Serie A.
Patrick Vieira was a shadow of his former self, struggling to make a foothold in the game. Vidic pounced on the invitation and made a goal-scoring return to the side, having missed out the first leg through suspension.
The only positive for Mourinho was that it was just four minutes into the game, allowing Inter enough time to claw their way back into the game. And in fairness, Inter did do that to a certain extent.
The early strike seemed to have hurt United more than Inter, as the Champions began giving away the ball cheaply and showing glimpses of complacency, very unlike United. The vibrant attacking play that is characteristic of United's game was missing.
Inter took full advantage of United's inconsistency in mid-field and almost made United pay—Ibra and Stankovic going close. United were also guilty of missing a couple of good chances with O'Shea being the guilty party this time around.
Inter could have easily put three past Edwin Van der Sar, but it was not to be. Though Ibra could not exert the kind of influence on the game as he would have liked to, he went close on a couple of occasions without being his brilliant self. Inter finished the half strongly, very much like United did in the first leg. Despite Inter's exertions, United were still largely comfortable even if they showed a hint of profligacy.
Second Half - Once bitten, twice shy?
Inter started the second half brightly, taking off from where they left the first. The Old Trafford faithful made themselves heard with chants of "Sit Down Mourinho", incensing the Portuguese tactician, after all he had a terrific record on this ground.
When it looked like an equalizer from Inter was imminent, United struck, again. For a second time, United had scored, against the flow of the game, sending the crowd wild. The chants of 'Sit Down Mourinho' now turned to 'F*** Off Mourinho'.
The goal was beautifully crafted by Giggs, created by Rooney and finished by Ronaldo. United would have hoped that the tie had been put to rest—but Inter kept knocking. Mourinho decided to reshape his side and sent out Adriano in place of Stankovic. Adriano almost had an immediate impact, only for the post to come to United's rescue, again.
For large parts of the game, United had themselves to blame as they struggled to hold possesion of the football. Even the ever-consistent Scholes was wayward in his passing. Ronaldo had been silent for the most part of the second half. Berbatov was his usual self and was isolated upfront at times. He did well hold up the ball but was short on service.
Rooney and Giggsy were the "better" players on the pitch—albeit in flashes. Giggs had a tremendous game over the two legs, easily the man of the two ties.
United's defense were largely untested by Inter's hitmen, but their performance at some places left a lot to be desired in the coming rounds. Carrick did a decent job without raising too many hackles.
Van Der Sar avoided any embarrassments but was left stranded with the post being the saving grace on a couple of occasions. Overall another decent outing for the defense.
Inter's attacking play was lacklustre to say the least. Ibra failed to show up once again, taking to 16 his tally of games in the knock out stages of the European Cup since he scored a goal. Not a record to brag about, from a player supposed to be the best in the World. Balotelli tried to make an impact but was unable to cause a ripple. He was easily Inter's worst player on the pitch.
Samuel had a piece of everyone in a red shirt on his way to a booking. Julius Cesar had another field day, only if he could repeat his feat at the San Siro. Maicon and Santon were excellent as full backs and had a better game than they did in Italy.
In a nutshell, the game had three major outcomes:
First, United made it to the last eight of the Champions League, without putting in a flawless performance, though their performances were good relative to Inter's over the two legs, United undoubtedly rich on championship form. United could easily have been knocked out of the cup had the Big Guy on Top not been on a mission against Jose's side.
Second, this tie, over both legs, has established the fact and dispelled any doubts about Ibra's absenteeism from the European games. 'Form is temporary, Class is permanent' - is just a wretched cliche fans of Ibra use to save his face, a player with class could not have gone 16 European games without scoring. Ibra would be better off concentrating on his games rather than belittling the Ballon d'Or or Ronaldo. We all know who the best in the world is for now.
Third, the biggest casualty of this game will undoubtedly be 'The Special one'. Mourinho will know deep down that has credibility has been questioned. He may well win the Scudetta with Inter, but that is not he was brought to Inter for. Inter had won the Scudetta in the past even without Jose. It was the European Glory that Mourinho was supposed to help bring home to the Italian Champions.
I would be surprised if Mourinho stays at Inter beyond the current campaign. With a return to Chelsea or English football seeming unlikely and Mourinho ruling himself out from the candidacy of the National Team's coach, the only possible destination seems Spain. Who knows, we may see Mourinho managing Real Madrid very soon.
For sometime though, this day will be remembered as the day when you saw United Roar as Mourinho was struck on 4'.