The back-to-back trebles at Barcelona and Inter that made Samuel Eto’o a modern legend

The back-to-back trebles at Barcelona and Inter that made Samuel Eto’o a modern legend

“I think it would be the best for Barcelona if Eto’o does leave. His sale is my decision. I think it’s time to change.” Though Pep Guardiola had held his position as the head coach of Barcelona for a mere matter of days, it was with an unyielding conviction that he laid out his ambitious plans for the future of his team. “All of the players in the first-team squad last season are of a very high level but we are forming a squad and Deco, Ronaldinho and Eto’o are not in our minds,” he said, electing not to mince his words. “We’re planning the season without them … if they were at their best they would be with us.”

In the weeks that drew the summer of 2008 into view, Guardiola’s plans were swiftly put into action as both Deco and Ronaldinho were rehomed. The adopted Portuguese was ushered towards a reunion with manager Luiz Felipe Scolari in England, after Barcelona accepted a €10m bid from Chelsea, while AC Milan’s offer of €25m proved sufficient to win the signature of the Brazilian.

Samuel Eto’o, on the other hand, didn’t budge an inch. He barely shuffled in his chair. Despite interest from a host of clubs from the Premier League and Serie A – Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Internazionale and AC Milan just a few of those widely reported – the Cameroonian forward remained in Barcelona. Guardiola may well have insisted the power was in his own hands but Eto’o made it clear he would not be forced out. Determined to prove his worth to his new boss, the attacker set about treating his team’s pre-season as though it were an audition.

Eto’o’s efforts were not to be in vain. “When I was unveiled, I said I was not counting on [Eto’o] but I also said we would treat him as any other player,” Guardiola told the press, as the LaLiga season continued its approach. “During the past two, three weeks, the past month that we have been together, I have been very pleased with his performance. I only have words of praise. His behaviour and attitude in Scotland and the United States have made me decide that Eto’o will remain with us. And, as well as that, he is a player with immense talent.”

And so, with Guardiola’s u-turn complete, all seemed to be well once more. Deco and Ronaldinho had long since bitten the dust but, heading into the impending campaign with renewed vim and vigour, Eto’o remained a permanent fixture at Camp Nou.

Guardiola’s inaugural league season began in uncertain terms, with an opening day defeat to newly promoted Numancia and a draw with Racing Santander. Lacking tangible proof of progression on the pitch, eyebrows were instinctively raised over the new manager’s early season tinkering with personnel. But Guardiola’s Blaugrana soon found their feet and, from that moment on, there appeared to be no halting them. Following an emphatic 6-1 win away to Sporting Gijón, Barça embarked upon a run of 19 wins in 20 games. Guardiola’s men first ascended to LaLiga’s summit on the first of November and refused to be dethroned until the league title was theirs.

At the head of an outrageous offensive trident, Eto’o occupied the centre-forward role while a proficient pair of auxiliary wingers in Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi dominated their respective flanks. As the team would go on to hit a then-club record 105 goals in 38 league games, across all competitions, the trio notched an exact century between them; Messi scoring 38 times, Eto’o 36 and Henry 26.

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Barcelona’s committee on player acquisitions had spent much of the lead up to the campaign telling the world of their desire to invest in a world-class number nine. Eto’o’s stunning retort was to spend the entire season reminding them they already had the finest on their books.

In late October, Eto’o broke the record for Barcelona’s fastest ever hat-trick, notching three times in 18 minutes in a 5-0 win at home to a shell-shocked Almería. A fortnight later, back at Camp Nou once more, Eto’o thrashed four first-half goals beyond the poor sap in the Valladolid goal in the space of 32 minutes.

The Cameroonian had, to now, evidenced himself to be an inarguably good goalscorer. Very good, even. Yet, since his new boss had shown the audacity to so publicly question his abilities, he had a point to prove. Eto’o, now a striker scorned, was determined to be great.

In February, a point-saving brace away to Betis gave Eto’o his 99th and 100th goals for the club. After scoring his team’s final goal of the domestic season, away to Deportivo, he’d hit 30 for the season in LaLiga alone. In Rome, three days before, Eto’o had already crowned his season’s work with quite possibly his most important contribution to date. As his team met the toast of England in the Champions League final, it was he who opened the scoring against Manchester United.

Fed by Andrés Iniesta, whose marauding run through the centre of midfield ended with a neat slide through to his Cameroonian teammate, whose own forward run had taken him a little wider than preferred, Eto’o controlled the ball neatly with his right instep. His next touch was to fake a shot, which fooled Nemanja Vidić into a half-turned block, affording him the space to dash inside him, continuing deep into the area. Before a desperate block from the retreating Michael Carrick could arrive, Eto’o had already thumped a shot with the outside of his right foot, which stung the left hand of Edwin van der Sar before nestling into the back of the net.

The first 10 minutes of the final had belonged to Sir Alex Ferguson’s men; all the running, the cute movement, the promising passing spells and forward momentum had been with Manchester United. Eto’o’s hitman proficiency, gifting his team the lead with their very first meaningful attack of the game, swung the initiative in their favour and proved key to their eventual 2-0 triumph. For the second time, Eto’o was a champion of Europe.

Perhaps more telling than the number of goals to Eto’o’s name, as mighty a total though they made, was the number of appearances beside them. While goalkeeper Victor Valdés played 49 times, captain Carles Puyol 45, the maestro Messi as many as 51, Samuel Eto’o represented the Blaugrana on 52 occasions throughout the 2008/09 season. Only Dani Alves and Xavi featured more regularly across all competitions – twice apiece – and nobody featured more times for the club in LaLiga than the Cameroonian.

Eto’o – the very same Eto’o who was told by Guardiola before the season’s start that he was deemed surplus to requirements, in an unforgettable, unprecedented treble-winning season – had made himself indispensable, and his manager agreed. Pertinently, however, his manager never claimed him to be irreplaceable and by late July Eto’o was an ex-Barcelona player.

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Exactly who orchestrated Eto’s swift exit is a tale still open to interpretation. Whereas Barcelona had spent much of the previous summer positioning Eto’o in every shop window on La Rambla, by June 2009, the club had well and truly changed their tune and, after his season’s heroics, it appeared the ball was finally firmly in Eto’o’s court, reportedly replete with a contract extension awaiting his signature.

“We’re trying to find a way in which he can stay. I have called him a couple of times but he hasn’t answered his mobile. I don’t know if he has changed the number or whether he’s lost it but I would like to speak to him,” club president Laporta lamented, in a fashion that seemed almost a parody. “The situation has saddened me because we’ve always had a clear and direct relationship. We offered him two years and we’re waiting for his answer.”

Yet for all Laporta’s talk, it appeared as though Guardiola’s reassuring chatter regarding the attacker had been mere lip service. It remained clear to most that he still wished to upgrade his centre-forward and his wanting gaze had not shifted from Zlatan Ibrahimović since the summer before.

It would have come as a surprise to much of the football world had Barcelona simply sent their Cameroonian packing, en route to the highest bidder in order to finance a deal for the prolific Swede. Though Ibrahimović, just a year Eto’o’s junior, had weaved a tantalising trail of extraordinary goal-scoring exploits throughout every club of his choosing, Eto’o was, of course, fresh from a treble-winning 36-goal season. But Barça didn’t only trade Eto’o for Ibrahimović, they used the forward as a makeweight in an astoundingly lopsided deal.

On 28 July 2009, the news broke worldwide. Official reports on the BBC made no attempt to steady the stark imbalance. ‘Ibrahimović seals Barça move’ announced the headline. ‘Zlatan Ibrahimović has signed a five-year contract with Barcelona to end his three-year spell at Inter Milan,’ detailed the report, ‘Barça have paid £40m while fellow striker Samuel Eto’o moves the other way to the Italian club.’

Next came the quotes; Ibrahimović’s first. “It feels like I’m living a dream now. It was not easy for me in the last weeks.” It went on. “I made an agreement with the president of Inter that the only club they could sell me to was Barcelona. The others could ask but they wouldn’t get a reply. The only one I answered was Barça. That gives me a special feeling.” And on. “Barça has a historic tradition. Everyone wants to be part of this great club, they’ve made history and I want to be part of that history.”

President Laporta’s glowing endorsement of his new flame followed. “He is not a conformist, he is ambitious, a winner, an authentic man with strong feelings and he wanted to come to Barcelona.”

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Finally, Eto’o’s footnote. “I made history at Barcelona but that chapter is over. At Inter, I am starting a new chapter and starting from zero. I am happy with this new adventure and hope everything goes well. I won a lot at Barcelona and I hope to do so in these colours.”

For better or for worse, the Catalans had jumped at the opportunity to refresh their ranks and make a trade that they believed ameliorated their forward line. Remarkably, the club also seemed to see no fault in sending Eto’o off to Milan holding a £40m swag bag, with Inter’s name on it, to put the finishing touches to the deal. For Ibrahimović’s signature, Barcelona were ready and willing to part with Eto’o on top of a princely sum.

Second to his grand unveiling to the Italian media, Eto’o was predictably peppered with questions attempting to tease out his own unique take on the preceding transfer saga. Eto’o, however, was in no mood to discuss comparisons with the man succeeding him at Barcelona. “I am Samuel Eto’o and I don’t want to compare myself to anyone,” came his confident riposte. “I believe the victories I have earned up to now can contribute to giving the right value to my name.” A consecutive history-defining season would put that beyond doubt.

With José Mourinho anticipating a tough second season at Internazionale, and characteristically resolute in pursuit of his club’s fifth straight Scudetti, much like his Spanish contemporary at the Barcelona helm, the Portuguese manager reinvigorated his squad through the transfer market.

In addition to Eto’o’s widely publicised arrival, Mourinho elected to acquire the services of fellow striker Diego Milito and his teammate Thiago Motta, procured from domestic rivals Genoa, as well as Bayern Munich’s centre-back Lúcio and Real Madrid’s Dutch midfield dynamo Wesley Sneijder.

Though hardly exhibiting the swashbuckling style to which Eto’o had become accustomed during his short spell under the rule of ‘student of Cruyff’ Guardiola, Mourinho’s Inter proved themselves to be typically assured, effective and unashamedly pragmatic. With a keenly drilled defence, it was upon a foundation of clean sheets that the team’s success would be built and largely through goals scored on the counter that their victories would be obtained.

Mourinho prevailed by oscillating between two similar formations – a forward-facing 4-3-1-2 and a more reserved 4-2-3-1 – both of which placed Milito as the offensive lead of the team’s charges. As a result, as the season progressed, it was Milito who established himself as the Nerazzurri’s foremost forward. This meant that Eto’o – demanded by Mourinho to occupy a position on the wing and encouraged to drift in-field when in possession and retreat to fulfil his defensive duties when without the ball – suffered in front of goal, but his contribution would be duly noted in other areas.

Inter’s season was awash with draws. In the league, Mourinho’s men tied 10 of their 38 games, while in the Champions League, they drew each of their first three group games. It was here that Mourinho’s inherent pragmatism came good, though. While Inter’s closest Serie A rivals and eventual runners-up Roma drew only eight of their own league fixtures, Inter shaded them in goals scored and goals conceded. With the most impressive figures in both category in all the league, this evidenced Inter as the most effective unit in the country, even if they did have their weaknesses.

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Furthermore, on the continent, after three successive draws, Inter managed to sneak through to the knockouts by defeating Rubin Kazan in a winner takes the final qualification spot game on matchday six. The Italians had collaborated with Guardiola’s Barcelona on a stalemate in their group stage opener before succumbing to a 2-1 defeat when travelling away to Camp Nou in late November but, having progressed nonetheless, Mourinho’s side believed they could yet have the last laugh. They’d be handed the chance to in the semi-finals when, after negotiating their way through the knockout rounds, first defeating Chelsea, then CSKA Moscow, Eto’o’s clubs, past and present, were reunited.

The fate of the opening leg at the San Siro first swung in Barcelona’s favour when ex-Inter full-back Maxwell cut-back a cross which found the left foot of Pedro who swept his side into a first-half lead. But before Barça could return to their dressing room with a half-time advantage, a low Eto’o cross found Milito in the Barcelona area. The Argentine took a touch, turned away from goal, took another, then prodded the ball wide to Sneijder who fired the ball past the Catalan custodian. One each at the break.

In the second half, Inter constructed a lead that even a later 1-0 loss in the return leg couldn’t undo. First, a Goran Pandev pass dissected the Barcelona defence and set Milito charging ahead to continue their counter at pace. Exploiting Eto’o’s position in the centre of the area as a distraction to the Barça plan only, Milito instead sought out Maicon who found that his first touch teed himself up perfectly to nick in with a second that caressed the ball into the far corner. And just as one became two, two soon became three as Barcelona were put to the sword once more with Milito the provider becoming Milito the goalscorer, a role far more adept for a player of his predatory nature.

When Barcelona failed to overturn their deficit at home eight days later, Mourinho and his Inter side had their Champions League final. Before that particular date with destiny, though, Inter first had the small matter of a domestic double to take home.

In early May, they got their hands on a first trophy of the season. A coveted Coppa Italia attained, with just a solitary goal conceded on their five-game route to the title, the Nerazzurri were just getting started. Their defeat of Roma in the final was only the beginning.

Eleven days after draping the Coppa Italia in their beloved black and blue, Inter contested their final game of the Serie A season, away to Sienna, and secured the narrow victory required to retain their title once more. Just two points ahead of familiar foes Roma, Inter had their double. Two down, one to go. Attention, naturally, turned to 22 May.

To a din that echoed around Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu to the tune of more than 80,000 voices, Bayern Munich emerged, determined to stand between the Italians and history. Sadly for the Bavarians, this would be Inter’s day to cherish.

In their recollection of the 2009/10 Champions League final, the history books remember just one name and two numbers: Milito; 35, 70. Those three details alone recall every fact that need be remembered about the occasion as it was those three details alone that won Inter their unprecedented treble. Those three details changed Inter’s history forever.

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As a reminder that even the most magical of real-life fairy tales must be grounded in some regard, it wasn’t – as many may have hoped – Eto’o who scored the goals that won Inter their champions league. But, though they came not from his own boots, as only 16 goals did throughout the season, that Inter were in a position to win a most unimaginable treble was thanks in large part to the Cameroonian.

Eto’o made 44 appearances in all competitions, including 12 in the Champions League; the joint most of any Inter player. Though his contributions in front of goal diminished by two-thirds from the season before, it was clear to see that this was not due to the physical fall-off that the Barcelona hierarchy so vocally feared but instead to a shift in role under the instructions of Mourinho.

For Barcelona, meanwhile, offloading Eto’o proved, by no means, to be their downfall. The club retained their LaLiga crown, losing just one game on the way to an outstanding 99-point haul, by which time they had long since secured the season-opening Supercopa de España and UEFA Super Cup trophies, in addition to the FIFA World Club Cup, which signed off on a record-breaking calendar year in which Barcelona lifted a never-before-seen six trophies. Still, there is nothing to suggest Eto’o could not have performed just as well as Ibrahimović were he afforded the opportunity to continue his role.

Before moving onto pastures new at the end of the following season, Eto’o was implicit in Inter’s securing of a quintuple of trophies, adding the calendar year’s Supercoppa Italiana and Club World Cup to their haul, as only a loss to Atlético Madrid in the European Super Cup prevented them from matching Barcelona’s remarkable sextuple of the year before. Eto’o, supposedly over the hill long before the end of the 2010/11 season, banked 37 goals in 42 games.

When posed with a question regarding his headline-hitting Cameroonian following Eto’o’s goal and two assists to carry his side beyond Bayern in the Champions League, Inter president Massimo Moratti told the press: “I’m not sure if the deal that brought Eto’o to the club was my best piece of transfer business ever, but I really think it was a great piece of business for us. Eto’o is fantastic. I do not want to take anything away from Ibrahimović but for everyone it was really a great deal to get Eto’o. Samuel is truly extraordinary.” That he was.

Though Moratti may have been happy to define the trade as being ”for everyone … a great deal”, the truth was, Inter’s benefits outweighed Barcelona’s in a big way. While Eto’o followed becoming the only player ever to win back-to-back major trebles with two different clubs by outperforming even himself in black and blue, the following year, an ever-volatile Ibrahimović departed Barça after just a single season, having fallen out with Guardiola.

Ultimately Moratti’s comments weren’t unjust. Both teams did, indeed, find the treasure they were searching for in each acquisition. The spoils alone, lited during the fleeting eras in which Eto’o and Ibrahimović scored their goals in the Blaugrana of Barcelona and the Nerazzurri of Internazionale, tell that story concisely.

But if to prove no other point than this, Samuel Eto’o’s back-to-back trebles capped two truly prolific spells, underlined what an immaculate goalscorer he was throughout a long and illustrious career, and proved that Eto’o was certainly no man’s makeweight.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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