Gomez exacts Inter revenge
When Internazionale and Bayern Munich lined up to contest the Champions League final in Madrid last May, each side stood on the brink of an immaculate season.
The sky-high standards that were set at the Bernabeu that night have shackled them both ever since, with Inter's achievements in 2011 on course to remain in the shadow of their aspirations.
Wednesday night was Bayern's night at an intimidating San Siro, as the German champions made a significant stride towards achieving salvation with a classy display and, ultimately, a deserved win on a freezing night in Milan.
Bayern played as though their season depended on it. It does, of course, but Inter's does too. So while Bayern coach Louis van Gaal embraced his side's core strengths - fluid attacking wing play - Leonardo's retreated to a bland Italian default: Narrow, negative and conservative.
"It's pretty much impossible for Bayern to win the Bundesliga this season," a downbeat Arjen Robben told Kicker magazine earlier this week. "I'd say that we have more chance of winning the Champions League than scooping the domestic title."
It would seem leaders Borussia Dortmund are unlikely to be caught and with Bayern struggling to even qualify for next season's competition - much like his former side Chelsea - the significance of this match was not merely as a re-run of nine months ago.
From the opening exchanges, it was clear that Bayern meant business and it was the unlikely figure of Luiz Gustavo, the man brought in to partner Bastien Schweinsteiger in midfield following the January departure of Mark van Bommel, who had Inter concerned.
Gustavo's two long range efforts in quick succession midway through the first half were a warning that Inter that did not heed. Mario Gomez, pre-destined it seemed, to be the hero also saw a header crash against the bar as Bayern created the clearer openings.
But rather than becoming irritated at their inability to find the back of the net, Bayern stuck to their guns and would eventually be rewarded for their perseverance.
Inter, meanwhile, were frustrating themselves - and the 80,000 sell-out crowd - as over-elaborate play in the final third saw many a promising attack fall by the way side. Samuel Eto'o cut a forlorn figure.
Wesley Sneijder, too, resembled a stroppy child every time he gifted possession to the opposition, which has been the story of his season He was eventually booked for whining at the referee to cap yet another underwhelming post-World Cup performance and, dare it be said, post-Jose Mourinho performance.
After a first half that generally saw tactical pragmatism win out, the second half was a far more open affair. Chiefly, because Bayern could smell blood.
The industrious Thomas Muller missed a good opportunity a minute after the restart before Robben, who gave Cristian Chivu a night to forget, waltzed his way into the box before finding the near post with his unfavoured right foot.
With giant Inter banners adorning every spare ledge and the ultras demanding more from their side, the San Siro was a cauldron. But not even the deafening roar every time Javier Zanetti broke forward from the back or Maicon galloped down the right wing, could inspire the home side into fashioning many clear cut opportunities. Their best chance fell to Esteban Cambiasso but, from close range, his snatched shot sailed over the bar.
With the second half edging ever closer to a goalless draw, albeit an absorbing one, Bayern started to take advantage of the gaps that were appearing as Inter committed more men forward, desperate for a lead to protect when the sides meet again at the Allianz Arena on March 15.
But this played into Schweinsteiger's hands. The conductor, the architect, the genius - whatever you want to call him - was at his illuminating best and the extra space Inter afforded him was suicidal.
He single-handedly had the reigning champions on the ropes, as he picked out Franck Ribery and Robben's incising runs with pinpoint accuracy and unrelenting consistency. Indeed, Bayern looked all the stronger for having that duo on the pitch at the same time.
While Inter were indisciplined in midfield and fluffed their lines in attacking positions, the simplicity of Bayern's attacks paid off in the dying minutes when the Bundesliga's top scorer, Mario Gomez, found a goal to give Bayern a win they richly deserved.
The crimson glow of flares in the Bayern end symbolised that revenge had been sweet, as the disillusioned Nerazzurri faithful trudged off wondering whether Inter's golden age is drawing to a close.