Inter Milan Completes The Italian Job on Barcelona in the Champions League
The sprinklers rose up from the pitch and sprayed the Inter Milan players and staff. The Barcelona anthem, “Cant del Barça,” blared through the loudspeakers as the Culés did not know whether to clap off their Blaugrana heroes or vehemently whistle at the unwanted visitors from northern Italy. This sense of confusion permeated throughout the Camp Nou after referee Frank de Bleeckere blew the whistle for fulltime, but two things were certain: FC Internazionale Milano would face Bayern Munich in the Champions League final in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid, and FC Barcelona would not.
Inter manager José Mourinho fueled the fire, in typical Mourinho fashion, in the pre-match press conference when he spoke of Barcelona’s ambition to compete in the Champions League final in Madrid:
“We (Inter Milan) have the dream of winning the Champions League, and for Barcelona, it’s an obsession. This is the difference. A dream is purer than an obsession. There is pride in a dream, anywhere in the world. For Barcelona, it was a dream to reach the final in Rome, but to reach the final at the Bernabéu is an obsession for them.”
If this quote were analyzed on its own grounds, very few people would know what the hell he was talking about; however, Mourinho’s ingenuity for creating distractions away from his team and onto himself has served him well with his previous teams. FC Porto and Chelsea put up with his antics because they worked. This formula seemed to sour at Inter Milan, where the Italian press were unimpressed with his brash personality, and even Inter president Massimo Moratti started to suffer from Mourinho fatigue.
With the 3-1 triumph at the San Siro in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals against Barcelona, Mourinho had free reign, and his quote struck a chord with Barça and its fans like no other manager could accomplish. They immediately went on the defensive.
Some Barcelona supporters reportedly attacked Mourinho’s car after the press conference, punching the windows, throwing various paraphernalia, and attempting to topple the car on its side.
Barça TV, the club’s television channel, created an advertisement where various Barcelona players promised to “leave their skins” on the Camp Nou pitch to audibly declare their intentions on Wednesday night, accompanying the shirts they displayed after they beat Xerez on Saturday which showed the message, “Nos vamos a dejar la piel,” (We will leave our skin).
Another section of Barcelona fans tried to disrupt the sleep of the Inter players Tuesday night into the early hours of Wednesday morning outside of their team hotel, making constant noise with drum, horns, and firecrackers.
Barcelona president Joan Laporta gave his rebuttal to Mourinho’s “obsession” quote, stating that anyone who assesses Barcelona as obsessive is a second-rate psychologist.
A strong reaction from many arms of the Barça establishment, but why? There is no doubt that José Mourinho can get under the skin (no pun intended) of his opposition, but whenever all of this huffing and puffing occurs, usually it means that there is doubt, and they engage in all of this extracurricular activity to convince themselves otherwise.
When Barcelona traveled to Stamford Bridge in last year’s Champions League semifinal second leg without scoring at the Camp Nou, this same rah-rah fervor did not exist prior to the match. Although it took a 93rd minute goal by Andrés Iniesta to slug past Chelsea into the final, the confidence that Barcelona had of breaking through a resolute Chelsea defense was enough for them.
Although they only needed to score once at Stamford Bridge last season, a 2-0 result at the Camp Nou, even against a José Mourinho defense, was not an impossible situation by any stretch. All of the extraneous motivation mentioned above was inconsistent with this team and teemed with a desperation not seen since the end of the Frank Rijkaard era.
When the players took to the pitch at 20:45 CET, the choreographed displays of the Catalunyan flag from each goal side and a Barça trophy resplendent in garnet, yellow, and blue from the sideline stands would inspire the most jaded of players. Not only the Barcelona players, but the Inter Milan players who would want nothing more than to spoil Barcelona’s magnificent run since the origins of the Pep Guardiola regime.
With Carles Puyol suspended for this match, Gabriel Milito was expected to deputize in central defense, but Guardiola threw a wrench with Milito starting at left back and Touré Yaya in central defense. In the first leg, most of Inter’s successful attacking moves originated down the right flank, and they took advantage of Maxwell’s constant forward runs and left him out of position for Maicon, Samuel Eto’o, and Wesley Sneijder to perform their duties.
For Inter Milan, yellow cards became their main concern, as, save for Lúcio, the rest of the back four was one yellow card away from missing the final should they reach that stage. The burning question lingered about whether Maicon, Walter Samuel, and Javier Zanetti would be hesitant to throw themselves into challenges, knowing that one late tackle could mean suspension from the biggest match of their careers. Ask Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, who missed the 1999 final when Manchester United completed their astonishing two-goal turnaround in stoppage time against Bayern Munich. According to Keane, “Although I was putting a brave face on it, this (missing the final) was just about the worst experience I’d had in football.”
Inter clearly frustrated Barcelona through the first twenty-seven minutes, ceding nearly 80% of the possession but allowing nothing to bother their goalkeeper Júlio César. Then the inevitable controversy ensued when Frank de Bleeckere sent off former Barça player Thiago Motta for a hand to the face of Sergio Busquets. As the modern game would dictate, Busquets reacted as though he suffered a knockout blow from Mike Tyson. He had the audacity to take a peek at de Bleeckere to see if he flashed a card before “regaining his senses,” and he accomplished exactly what he set out to do when Motta raised his hand to his face.
Understandably, Motta could not believe the decision and needed to be held back not from de Bleeckere but from Busquets. A harsh decision by de Bleeckere, but if the roles were reversed, Motta would have likely done the same thing and also try to coax that red card.
Until Gerard Piqué scored in the 84th minute, however, Barça’s one-man advantage appeared irrelevant, as Inter Milan continued to clear any ball that entered their penalty area. Júlio César made a spectacular diving, fingertip save on a Lionel Messi curler, and Bojan Krkic missed an absolute certainty of a header two minutes before Piqué’s goal, but the vast majority of Barça’s attempts on goal were fired from the twenty-five to thirty-five yard distances, nothing that would seriously trouble Júlio César.
More newsworthy than Barça’s lack of cutting edge involved the substitution of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 63rd minute in favor of Bojan Krkic. With twenty-seven minutes on the clock, there remained plenty of time to score the necessary two goals, but Pep Guardiola believed Bojan had a better chance of galvanizing the offense than Ibrahimovic. Ibrahimovic’s reputation had been linked to his shrinking violet act in the most important moments for both club and country, and his listless performance against Inter Milan will do him no favors in shaking this reputation.
The last ten minutes became purely riveting, as the siege on Inter’s goal had actual consequences, and when Bojan appeared to net the clinching goal in the first minute of stoppage time, the city of Barcelona actually lifted from the ground, but Frank de Bleeckere blew his whistle before Bojan’s goal transpired for a handball on Touré Yaya.
No one claimed any doubt that Touré Yaya did not intentionally handle the ball, as Walter Samuel smashed his clearance straight into Yaya’s tucked arm from less than three yards away, but that call always goes against the attacking team and in favor of the defending team. If that same situation happened, where the offensive player kicked the ball into the defensive player’s tucked arms in their own penalty area, the referee would rightfully continue play because the handball was unintentional.
Barcelona did not do enough on the pitch, and their 1-0 result might be their most hollow victory in many years. Legitimate questions will be asked about this Barça team. Would Andrés Iniesta have made the difference between advancing and failing? Does Pep Guardiola need to develop an alternate plan when the opposition decides to employ ten men behind the ball? Did Barcelona miss the inspiration of their captain, Carles Puyol, even though Inter Milan made little to no suggestion of troubling the Barça defense? Was the Ibrahimovic for Eto’o swap a potential bust?
All of these inquiries will either never be answered or answered over time, but now they must focus on their tenuous one point lead over Real Madrid in La Liga. Failing to reach the Champions League final in Madrid hurts, but if Barcelona cannot hold on to the La Liga crown after having at least a share of the lead for all but a couple weeks of the season, this potentially historic team will become just another good team that played nice football.
As for now, they will seethe over José Mourinho, pejoratively referred to as “The Interpreter” in Barcelona, and how he defiantly pointed to the crowd in revelry after his Inter Milan team achieved for what they set out. Mourinho deserved to do whatever he wanted, however, because he earned it. He slew the beast. Those windmills were actual giants, and he defeated the enchanter. Joan Laporta, Pep Guardiola, and the rest of the Blaugrana nation will look internally soon enough, but this pain that they will have to put away in time for Villarreal on Saturday stings much more than the joy they felt from any of their six trophies from a year ago.