By Gabriele Marcotti
April 29, 2010

Even though Inter and Jose Mourinho have been denying it since his appointment, the fact is that this is why he was hired to manage the Nerazzurri (and why he is far and away the highest-paid coach in the world): to deliver the Champions League. And now he has come within 90 minutes of achieving that goal, after defeating what -- in a few years -- we will probably remember as one of the greatest club sides in history.

"This is the best day of my career," Mourinho said Wednesday after Inter held on to eliminate Barcelona 3-2 on aggregate to reach the Champions League final on May 22 against Bayern Munich. "Better than winning the Champions League with Porto, better than winning the league at Chelsea."

Cynics will point out that the always-in-control Mourinho was saying the "right" things in his moment of glory -- "They had to turn on the sprinklers after the game to wipe away the blood of my players who gave everything on the pitch" was probably his finest quote from the evening -- but you also got the sense his words were incredibly heartfelt. After all, this season has probably been his biggest test and there have been moments when it looked as if things were slipping away.

Never before has he been so thoroughly questioned by the critics. It began in the summer, when Zlatan Ibrahimovic,who almost single-handedly delivered Serie A the year before, made it clear he wanted to leave. Mourinho could have -- and many suggested he should have -- thrown his weight behind the effort to keep him on board, perhaps with an umpteenth raise from generous president Massimo Moratti. But he did not. Instead, he let Ibrahimovic and left back Maxwell go and, effectively, got Thiago Motta, Samuel Eto'o, Diego Milito and Wesley Sneijder in exchange.

It was a masterstroke. Milito has scored 25 goals in all competitions (to Ibrahimovic's 21); Eto'o has added work rate, experience and intelligence; Sneijder has provided much-needed creativity behind the strikers; and Motta was instrumental in stopping Leo Messi during the first leg of the Champions League semifinal.

Mourinho's tactics have also come under unprecedented scrutiny. The coach himself admitted that, when facing smaller teams, Serie A was probably tougher than the Premier League, because managers of lesser clubs were better prepared tactically and frequently changed systems to stop the opposition. Even if Inter wins its last three Serie A games, it will end up with its lowest point total since 2005-06, suggesting that Mourinho's strategic difficulties have exacted a hefty toll. The fact that a ragtag, overachieving side like this season's Roma is just two points behind Inter in the Serie A table tells its own story.

Yet, when it really mattered, Mourinho delivered. He outschemed Carlo Ancelotti and Chelsea as well as Pep Guardiola and Barcelona. His detractors will say that Wednesday's return leg at the Camp Nou was a sterile, hyper-defensive display. That may be true, but when you play a man down for more than an hour at Barcelona, you don't have much of a choice. And the fact that Inter's mastery in the first leg forced Guardiola to make a huge gamble (playing center back Gabi Milito at left back) in an attempt to counter Mourinho's game plan is evidence of who won the mental battle.

While some, particularly in the English media, continue to depict Mourinho as some kind of infallible managerial juggernaut -- Sir Alex Ferguson, Fabio Capello, Jock Stein, Bill Shankly, Rinus Michels, Barack Obama, Chuck Norris and Galactus, the Devourer of Worlds rolled into one -- this campaign highlighted some of his limitations as well. But what matters is that he and Inter were able to overcome them.

As for Barcelona, great teams are judged not just by the trophies they deliver (not that Barca has been remiss in that department) but by the performances they offer and the emotions they engender. With that in mind, there is no denying that Barcelona is an outstanding team, possibly still the best in the world. It's just that, over 180 minutes, it ran into Inter at the wrong time. No Andres Iniesta, several key players having off nights, Inter raising its game and, of course, Mourinho getting everything right. In a knockout competition, sometimes that's all it takes.

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