FC Internazionale Milano's 45-year wait for victory in Europe's leading club competition could soon be over, but final opponents FC Bayern München will not make it easy for them in Madrid.
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Exhausted, drained and triumphant, FC Internazionale Milano's players sank to their knees as José Mourinho sprinted across the pitch to salute their ecstatic supporters celebrating wildly high up in Camp Nou's top tier.
Despite the handicap of playing FC Barcelona with just ten men for over an hour following Thiago Motta's dismissal, Inter's tireless running and sheer will finally ended the hosts' defence in a 3-2 aggregate win that earned them a UEFA Champions League final meeting with FC Bayern München at the Santiago Bernabéu.
Not even Gerard Piqué's 84th-minute goal that won the match but not the tie could break Inter's spirit as they denied Barcelona the chance of reclaiming the trophy at the home of their famous rivals, Real Madrid CF. That Barcelona clung so tenaciously to their crown, pushing to the final whistle, will send Bayern – comfortably through against Olympique Lyonnais on Tuesday – a stark warning of how tough a test they face on 22 May.
Four times Inter have faced the titleholders this term, and now they are through to the showpiece after ousting the team Bayern coach Louis van Gaal described as "the best in the world" in their own back yard.
Of course, Bayern can justifiably claim to have displayed similar fortitude to get this far. Their 4-1 win away against Juventus at the end of the group stage saved a floundering campaign and proved the turning point of their season. Late triumphs over ACF Fiorentina and Manchester United FC then showed they have the discipline and determination to match Inter step for step.
They may need all those qualities to bring their final opponents down from their cloud. Not even the sprinklers being turned on soon after the whistle at Camp Nou could dampen the Italian club's celebrations, and there was a definite symmetry to the Nerazzurri reaching the final at this great stadium. It was here that Mourinho cut his teeth as a coach under the late Sir Bobby Robson and latterly Van Gaal. Ten years since Van Gaal and his assistant went their separate ways they meet again, this time on an equal footing.
Both have won the competition once before, and both will be looking to join Ernst Happel and Ottmar Hitzfeld as just the third coach to do so in charge of two different clubs, Van Gaal having triumphed with AFC Ajax in 1995 and Mourinho nine years later with FC Porto.
While Barcelona coach Josep Guardiola muses on what went wrong, Mourinho and Van Gaal can dream of emulating his achievement last season of winning a UEFA Champions League, domestic league and cup treble. Not even the great Helenio Herrera's Grande Inter achieved that.
Point to prove
The San Siro side's three former Madrid players – Esteban Cambiasso, Walter Samuel and Wesley Sneijder – will all return to the Bernabéu with a point to prove, as will Bayern's Arjen Robben, who like Sneijder was sold by the club last summer. Van Gaal's insistence that Bayern sign Robben is a major reason why only two years after failing to even qualify for the competition, they are looking to join AC Milan, Madrid and Liverpool FC as the only sides to have won it at least five times.
The brilliant winger is in the form of his life and his crucial goals against Fiorentina, United and Lyon epitomise the confidence and freedom, so lacking at Bayern at the start of the season, that now run through Van Gaal's side as they target their first UEFA Champions League crown since 2000/01. The likes of Lucio, Samuel and Cambiasso face another stiff test to subdue the Dutchman, who played under Mourinho at Chelsea, just as they restrained Lionel Messi so well at Camp Nou.
Mourinho insisted pre-match that winning the UEFA Champions League was a dream not an obsession for Inter, but it is 38 years since the Nerazzurri last contested a final and 45 since they won it. Prior to Mourinho's appointment, 28 coaches had come and gone since Herrera last led Inter to European glory, the pressure rising every year and with every European title clinched by city neighbours Milan. For long-serving Inter president Massimo Moratti, the wait could finally soon be over. Only Bayern now stand in Inter's way.