MILAN // The first time Jose Mourinho took on Barcelona as a champion, the Catalans got their digs in first. This man, sneered La Vanguardia newspaper, "has an ego the size of the Sagrada Familia cathedral". The paper was responding, way back in 2004 to a scheduled meeting in the Champions League between Barcelona and Chelsea, then the employers of the Portuguese.
What followed during those ties was a controversy the size of Milan's Duomo, including allegations that Barcelona tried to influence the referee, a brawl after the second leg. The Special One and Barcelona are more used to one another now, so when Mourinho set up the latest battleground over whether his Inter Milan or Barca had done best out of the big summer transfer deal that took Samuel Eto'o to Italy and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Catalonia - "Samu is the best centre-forward in the world", beamed Mourinho - they took it as a rather plain sort of mind game. Mourinho has been playing sharper cerebral tactics with Barca for more than a decade.
There, they still sneeringly refer to him as "The Translator", for one of the jobs he did as a deputy to Bobby Robson in the late 1990s. He got on well with Pep Guardiola, then a player, now the head coach, because they were both football obsessives, students of detail. At Barcelona Mourinho won his first trophy in charge of a major club, allowed to take charge of the first-team in the final of the 2000 Catalan Cup.
"We'll be up against a manager who'll know us perfectly," noted Xavi Hernandez, one of perhaps two survivors from Mourinho's time likely to line up against Inter. Even after the spicy encounters with Mourinho's Chelsea, Xavi retains his admiration for the Inter coach. "He used to put a lot of faith in the young players and see how we'd respond," he recalls. "He's a football man and knows a lot about systems and tactics. He helped my game a lot." This counts as high praise.
There is a photograph of the Barcelona squad parading the 1997 Cup Winners' Cup from the Catalan government buildings in which a youthful Ronaldo, the Brazilian, and Mourinho are together, the assistant manager looking rather less than his 34 years, his hair jet black and bouffant, deep laugh lines around a wide smile. It is a face much less intense than the one you see now. At Barca, Mourinho lived more in the shadows, survived reshuffles and revolutions. Robson would move upstairs after one season at Barcelona, Louis Van Gaal replacing him as head coach. The Dutchman kept Mourinho on his staff, later making him his No 2. Mourinho is always generous in crediting Robson and Van Gaal as influences on his work, and says that from each he learned different aspects of the job.
Robson's "dedication to attacking football" shifted Mourinho's responsibilities to work more with Barca's defenders, while Van Gaal's ordered approach left a deep impression. "Nothing was left to chance," he said. "Every-thing was programmed to fine detail." Such fine detail that 18 months ago, it seemed that after all the spats, allegations and needle, Mourinho might return to Catalonia as the number one. But although some board members wanted him, the club president Joan Laporta opted to install Guardiola, a novice, and Mourinho went to Inter. Barca promptly won three titles, Mourinho one.
The sneers about his football style can be heard again ahead of tonight's Inter-Barca confrontation. "In terms of trophies, you can't say a word against him after he won everything in Portugal and England," said Johan Cruyff, who is still idolised by Barca fans. "But mastering attacking football is the hardest thing in the game." Ouch. Barca, of course, like to imagine they master it better than anybody. But they will be wary of several old allies tonight: of Eto'o, even of the belligerent midfielder Thiago Motta, once of Barcelona. But above all of the shrewdness of The Translator.