Flashback to a fortnight ago. Tottenham Hotspur dominated much of a slow-burning match at the San Siro, the colossal spaceship-like stadium that in a different era was an impenetrable bastion of elite Italian football on the outskirts of Milan. Ultimately, and almost inevitably, Tottenham let slip the advantage Christian Eriksen had given the club early on in the second half. It was melodramatic in the sense that it was all too predictable. In the dying minutes of the game, the Londoners succumbed to goals from Mauro Icardi and Matias Vecino.
This wasn't the obdurate Inter Milan of Jose Mourinho in 2010, which eliminated Barcelona in the semi-finals on the way to a treble; this wasn't the AC Milan, the other half of town, of the early noughties either. Spalletti's Inter had often been dysfunctional in Serie A without much cohesion and purpose, simply spurred on by inflated expectations from fans and the media alike but without the football to match it. And yet, here were Spurs again, defeated at the end of 90 minutes.
An opening defeat was always going to complicate Tottenham's route to the knockout stages with FC Barcelona in waiting on Wednesday, an opponent of an entirely different calibre. Not that the Spanish are without their own problems: they haven't won any of their last three games. The Catalans last went four games without winning in March 2009.
Much of Barcelona's current predicament stems from a tactical switch that coach Ernesto Valverde enforced " he ditched his 4-4-2 for a more traditional 4-3-3. Last season Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets, Paulinho, and Andres Iniesta typically formed Barcelona's midfield. The quarter contained just one artist, displeasing the Blaugrana faithful.
There were indeed too many ailments, at least in the demanding environment of Camp Nou: Paulinho was too blue collar. In the philosophy and tradition of Barcelona, he was a misfit, who, whatever his merits after a strange detour to China, was always going to struggle to please the Catalonian fans. Busquets, ever-ageing, was often found out, leaving the back line exposed, an increasingly unwelcome feature of Barcelona's game in recent seasons. Further upfield, Luiz Suarez was almost alienated. Still, Barcelona won the league, almost on a canter. If the midfield was just solid, there was always the Messi-ah to deliver salvation.
Messi remains front and centre of Barcelona's set-up, but the 4-3-3 formation is delicate and this season Barcelona's midfield has often been very porous. Without much cohesion in the axe of the field, Barcelona's dominance has wavered. Results, by Barcelona's standards, have been very mediocre. They cruised past PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League, but then drew at home to Girona and Athletic Bilbao and lost 2-1 to Leganes. They still top La Liga, jointly with their arch-rivals from the Spanish capital, but a crisis is looming around the corner. October is daunting for the Blaugrana with Valencia, Sevilla, Inter and Real Madrid on the fixture list.
The defence remains fragile, and in the midfield, Philippe Coutinho has been inconsistent. Further upfield, Ousmane Dembele suffers from the same affliction, often oscillating in the same game between his stupendous best and a player, who, understandably given his age, still has much to learn and is very much a work in progress. The outcome of the Tottenham game could well offer Valverde more clues about the tactical direction he wants to go in this season. A win offers further consolidation of the 4-3-3, a defeat and doubt may set in once more.
At least, the Catalans will face a weakened Tottenham. On Tuesday all of Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, Serge Aurier and Michel Vorm didn't train, leaving Mauricio Pochettino and his staff with a mini-injury crisis. Yet, the Argentinean has proven to be master in squad management, together with Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy. This summer, Spurs were about the only club in Europe to not reinforce their squad, keeping their best assets, shying away from the transfer circus. They suffered from a small slump before the Inter Milan defeat, but since that horrid night in Italy, Tottenham have won two out of two in the Premier League, with Harry Kane finding his scoring touch once more. For a night the Spurs talisman will try to emulate Lionel Messi and help his club to a crucial win against the mighty Barcelona.