BARCELONA // Soon after celebrating reaching the Champions League final with his Inter Milan players on Wednesday night, Jose Mourinho swaggered into the press conference deep in the bowels of the Camp Nou. The atmosphere was not unlike it had been on the pitch: tense and passionate.
Mourinho's name was mud among the Catalan media. Part envy, part frustration, they were seething with injustice after seeing their "perfect" team get knocked out of the competition by Inter's "anti-football". Seldom as objective as journalists should be, they had witnessed the side they write about weekly out-class and dominate Inter, yet fail to demolish their visitors in the way they had become accustomed.
Mourinho walked into the bear pit and took centre stage, quickly making it his theatre by commanding the attention of everyone present. Sartorially perfect and melting the hearts of every female, he eye-balled anyone and everyone as he asserted control. Other coaches in his position would have been defensive. They would have felt pressured to explain their aggressive and cynical tactics, time wasting and petulance.
The Inter Milan coach can speak Portuguese, English, Spanish and Italian fluently, but chose to answers questions only in the latter. And, like his players on the pitch, played to his strengths. He quickly had everyone on the back foot when he described Wednesday night's victory as the greatest moment of his career, better than winning the Champions League with relative minnows Porto in 2004. From the left-field, he then said that his compatriot and colleague Luis Figo was delighted with the result because it meant that he was no longer public enemy No 1 in Barcelona.
"Now that person is me," Mourinho said, vainglorious and proud of the honour - as if he had succeeding in what he'd set out to do. The issue of his personal safety never seemed to cross his mind. The man they called 'Mou' even criticised Italian football and, by the end, he had exhausted the journalists' questions, batting each away with the nonchalance of cricketer Brian Lara in his prime. Mourinho turned every slight into a positive. "How dare you criticise my tactics?" he asked one. "My defensive tactics were superb."
He also stated that he was proud of the manner in which his players had conducted themselves. And he had a point. It was only three weeks ago that the serious thinkers in the football world were putting Lionel Messi on a plinth alongside the finest players in the history of the game. Yet in more than 180 minutes against Inter, the little Argentine was peripheral at best. Inter's motivated players denied Messi the space in which he thrives. He was forced deeper and away from the opponents' goal where he is most effective, but Inter's midfield played so deep that there was no space there for Messi either.
With one his main supply lines of Andres Iniesta absent in both games to injury, Messi was more reliant on the creative genius of Xavi, but he, too, cut a frustrated figure as he was denied the space he needs to influence matches. Others will try to follow Mourinho's tactics to stunt Barca and Messi, but few have the personnel required, nor the motivation and focus instilled by their coach. Barca's reign had to end sometime, but they will not fall apart and Pep Guardiola will learn.
Three hours after the final whistle, some of the 5,400 travelling Inter fans were still celebrating what Mourinho had called "the most beautiful defeat in my life". "Jo-se Mourinho!" they sang on the grand thoroughfare of Diagonal which intersects Barcelona, absolutely certain in their minds who was responsible for them reaching their first European Cup final since 1972. He promised to make a difference when he arrived in Italy. He has done that allright.