Champions League Semi-final First Leg
Had things worked out differently, Jose Mourinho might very well be the Barcelona coach right now.
The former Chelsea and FC Porto coach was top of the list in the minds of two Barca directors when the decision was made to replace Frank Rijkaard in 2008 after two seasons without a La Liga title.
His impressive managerial record put the then 45-year-old Portuguese high up on the club's shortlist, and the fact he spent a number of years at Camp Nou under managers Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal in the 1990s certainly added credence to his potential appointment.
Crucially, though, president Juan Laporta – heavily influenced by former Barca player and manager Johan Cruyff – plumped instead for Josep Guardiola, a legend as a player at Camp Nou but a man barely tested at managerial level.
The result? Six trophies in the 39-year-old's first year, including the La Liga title, Copa del Rey and Champions League treble.
Guardiola knows our philosophy and is a representative of that philosophy
Barcelona president Juan Laporta
Mourinho, meanwhile, went to Inter Milan to further his growing legacy as one of football's natural-born winners, duly wrapping up the league and cup double in his first season at the San Siro.
As a result, when Barcelona and Inter Milan meet on Tuesday, the fascinating subtext will be this: can either claim to be the best in the business?
One thing is for sure, the club's respective fans adore them.
Guardiola was a hero among Barcelona fans even before his stunning debut season as boss, courtesy of his time as a player there.
Four of those were as captain, and during a stay of more than a decade the defensive midfielder helped the Catalan side to six league titles, six other domestic trophies, a European Cup Winners Cup, two Super Cups and the club's first Champions League title.
THIS SEASON – THE LEAGUE
34 ………….PLAYED………….. 33
20 …………….WON…………… 26
10 …………….DRAW…………… 6
4 ……………..LOST…………….. 1
65 ……….GOALS FOR………. 80
30 …….GOALS AGAINST……. 19
Not that his appointment as Rijkaard's successor in 2008 was any less surprising. At the time, Guardiola had spent just one season in senior management, leading Barcelona 'B' to the Tercera Division title.
Still, Laporta had no hesitation handing the then 37-year-old the reins.
Laporta has admitted since that Mourinho would have been the “more pragmatic option, a more secure one,” but Guardiola's appointment was all down to the unique Barcelona philosophy and identity.
Guardiola is one of the club's “own”. Born in Santdepor, a small village in Catalonia, he grew up through the Barcelona ranks from age 11 and enjoyed the best years of his playing days with the club.
As a result, he is intrinsically linked to the Barcelona “way”. The club's motto “Mes Que Un Club” means “More than a Club”, and part of that is the belief that winning is not the be all and end all. The ultimate goal is winning the right way.
THIS SEASON – EUROPE
10 ………….PLAYED………….. 10
6 ………………WON…………….. 5
3 ……………..DRAW……………. 4
1 ……………..LOST…………….. 1
12 ………..GOALS FOR………. 18
7 ……..GOALS AGAINST…….. 7
“Guardiola knows our philosophy and is a representative of that philosophy,” Laporta once said.
“He has unbelievable football knowledge and, most importantly, he is very brave. He takes the right decisions, but also takes risks in order to defend our philosophy. That is what makes him special.”
That Guardiola won every trophy on offer to Barcelona in his debut season is one thing. That he did so with the team playing a sensational style of football that has proved the envy of world football is the true mark of a Barcelona hero.
“People like Pep try to make the game enjoyable for the people, that's a real added bonus,” Barca legend Johan Cruyff has noted. “It's not just about winning the match, it's something else. And that is what gives you the most pride.”
Guardiola's relationship with the press has done his standing in Spanish football no harm at all, either.
The 39-year-old risked the wrath of a notoriously demanding press corps in Spain by refusing the standard one-on-one interviews from day one in the hot seat, but has positively charmed the media since with his “charm, openness, knowledge, humour and frankness”, says European football expert Graham Hunter.
“He also never gets bolshy or defensive in the way that Rijkaard did at times before him. He is just exceptional.”
Any doubts around Guardiola's appointment were erased in that first season, something not lost on England manager Fabio Capello, who worked with Guardiola as a player at Roma.
“There were doubts around Guardiola when he started,” says the Italian.
“But he has progressed, been tough in the hard moments and hasn't changed his philosophy. The results speak for themselves.”
Mourinho's standing among the Inter Milan fans as a “God” is no less rooted in the history of the club.
To quote John Foot, author of Calcio: A History of Italian Football: “Inter are diametrically opposed to all the other teams in Italy. They are deeply unpopular outside of their own fan base.”
The club's incredibly successful history is partly at the heart of that, as are recent efforts by the club's critics to draw them into the 2006 Italian football scandal that saw a number of clubs accused of match rigging.
Recently, Mourinho has hinted at conspiracy theories aimed at denying Inter what would be a fourth straight Serie A title.
A handcuff gesture after one game earned him a three-game touchline ban while he has been publicly critical of what he perceives is his side's victimisation by officials this season.
It is that defence of the club in face of public opposition that has helped endear the Portuguese to the fans so much.
He's certainly the best coach for Barca, and, as I told him myself in person, I hope he will continue as coach of Barca for ever
Mourinho on Guardiola
“Mourinho absorbs all the criticism that is aimed at the club, of which there is plenty,” writes Foot. “It doesn't filter through to the players or to the president, Mourinho takes it all.
“His strength of character, his ability to deal with and manipulate the press, his 'us against them' philosophy – it all bands the players, the staff, the fans together under him.
“To them he is a God. And only Mourinho could pull it off.”
The transition of Mourinho from Barcelona managerial candidate to Inter hero only makes his match-up against Guardiola all the more fascinating, and the significance has not been lost on either.
“We face a great team in Inter, whose coach is arguably the best in the world,” said Guardiola on Monday. “He has won titles in Portugal, England and Italy. It is an honour to face him.”
Mourinho, meanwhile, told the media: “I totally agree when they say that Barcelona president Laporta did better in choosing Guardiola than me.
“He's certainly the best coach for Barca, and, as I told him myself in person, I hope he will continue as coach of Barca for ever.
“Guardiola can be considered the best coach in the world because he won everything last season. If I win everything again I can be considered the best. The best coach is the one who wins most.”
The gauntlet has been thrown down.