A unique sporting event occurs this evening. Not a one off race between Usain Bolt and Rachel Alexandra; not a fight between Rampage Jackson and Wladimr Klitschko; not even an arm wrestle between Tiger Woods and Rafael Nadal (though I’d like to see all three).
No, I am talking about an interesting fixture in the group stage of the Champions League.
Tonight, Inter, perennial European underachievers since their '60s catenaccio heyday, face Barcelona; reigning Champions and flag-bearers for the ‘beautidful game’. While the match may not have any real meaning in the outcome of their group, as both will be overwhelming favourites to qualify, there are some intriguing sub-plots.
Firstly, the two clubs did some business in the close-season that raised a few eyebrows amongst observers. Barcelona sent Samuel Eto’o and a briefcase containing around €45m to San Siro and received Zlatan Ibrahimovic in return. The deal suggested that the Swede was worth around €70m in the eyes of Pep Guardiola.
On the surface the transaction looks utterly ludicrous. No one has scored more goals in La Liga than Eto’o in the last five years and the Cameroon international has shown himself to be an unselfish worker in Barca’s fluid system, supplementing Henry and Messi and generally making a huge contribution.
Ibrahimovic on the other hand has developed a reputation as the ultimate “YouTube” player in world football. Great in the highlights reels but when performances are needed in big games he is strangely anonymous, despite helping Inter out of the odd hole late in matches.
Digging a bit deeper, you have two personalities known to be ‘difficult’ and two clubs wanting to develop further. From Barcelona’s perspective, the deal looks dramatically one-sided. They have lost their top-scorer, and parted with a huge amount of cash. However, many connected with the club see it as money well spent to take Eto’o off their hands.
He was well known to be egotistical and demanding even if his hard-working role in Guardiola’s system suggested he was willing to commit to the club’s needs. Many supporters had lost patience with his unsettling talk about leaving and refusal to come to an agreement over a contract, and are glad to see him shipped out.
For Barcelona, the arrival of Ibrahimovic has provided different options on the field. Undeniably one of the most attractive teams to watch, Barca have suffered when their style has been ineffective against stubborn opponents. The Champions League semifinal versus Chelsea being an example, despite the Catalans managing to pull through.
The Barcelona way was to play out of trouble, keep it pretty and the goals will come. It is a great philosophy, but every team needs a plan b. With Ibrahimovic in the side, Guardiola now has one. If things get desperate, he now has a huge target man who can hold the ball up, play with his back to goal and slow the pace down. It gives Barca a new option.
For the player, it gives Ibrahimovic a chance to make a new start with a team used to winning. While he will undoubtedly be under pressure, due to the player he is replacing, the size of the transfer, and his own ambition to shake off the underachiever tag; he is now at a team that will not expect him to make the difference everytime they are in trouble.
At Inter, he was the catalyst for everything, at Barcelona there is an established cast of match-winners.
So what do Inter get out of the deal, apart from a proven goal-scorer and sack full of euros? Well, they also get a new tactical freedom that allows them to not feel obliged to channel everything through Ibrahimovic.
This has seen an almost instantaneous transformation in Inter’s play, and the way that the media have assessed their performances so far in Serie A.
For much of their period of recent domestic success, they have been lambasted for negative tactics, criticised for professional cynicism and reminded of their inability to progress in Europe. This season, they have been playing with a flair not previously seen in teams coached by Jose Mourinho.
The managerial contest is also intriguing. Mourinho tends to be viewed as an embodiment of all that is bad in football today, certainly by those who do not support his teams. A huge ego, a fractious relationship with the media and a pragmatic tactical approach. Guardiola on the other hand has been lauded for his creativity and his philosophy of attacking flair, while being open with the Spanish press.
For these two clubs to meet under the circumstances of a potentially meaningless group game is a shame, but the sub-plots make for a more interesting encounter. It gives Inter an instant opportunity to see if they have progressed under Mourinho; and Barcelona a chance to show their astute business acumen in what they have gained from the Eto’o/Ibra’ swap.
Inter have enjoyed overdue domestic success for the last five seasons, helped in part by the Calciopoli scandal, but they have been dominant nonetheless. In Europe however, they continue to lurch from failure to disappointment. Success in the Champions League will be how Mourinho’s tenure is judged, and this campaign is probably his last chance to steer Inter towards the final.
But before the serious business of the knock-out stages begins, enjoy this early chance to see two of the potential contenders sizing each other up. Makes a change from the usual group stage fayre of No-Mark United versus FC Never-Heard-Of.