Barcelona (AFP) – Rafinha replaced Lionel Messi and helped Barcelona win without him as the Brazilian scored the opener in a 2-0 Champions League victory over Inter Milan on Wednesday.
With Messi out for three weeks and Real Madrid next up at the Camp Nou on Sunday, the question was whether Barca could cope without their star player and captain.
The answer may not have been resounding — they lacked some punch before Jordi Alba added a late second — but this controlled performance will certainly send them into the Clasico with a spring in their step.
Luis Suarez, Arthur and Philippe Coutinho were all excellent in Messi’s absence.
Victory all-but secures Barcelona’s passage to the Champions League last 16 too. They have nine points from three games and now sit top of Group B.
Messi was watching in the stands with his son Ciro and his fractured right arm in a sling. As soon as the ball left the centre circle, the fans sang his name.
Barca had drawn with Athletic Bilbao in the only other match this season he had not started, and that could have been a defeat were it not for him setting up the equaliser.
Even the club had posted an article on its website this week entitled “no need to panic”, detailing their “not so bad” record without him.
Rafinha, who was playing on loan at Inter only five months ago, was a surprise replacement. Ousmane Dembele was the one expected to come in and the fact the Frenchman remained on the bench until the end does not speak well of his current status.
Messi was 22 when Barcelona last played Inter, a 3-2 aggregate win for the Italians in the 2010 semi-finals that remains arguably the peak of Jose Mourinho’s career.
As well as Rafinha, Coutinho spent five years at Inter while Mauro Icardi started out in Barca’s academy, ironically leaving in part due to Rafinha.
Icardi was quiet but had the first chance, beating Marc-Andre ter Stegen to Ivan Perisic’s low cross but stabbed his finish over.
Clement Lenglet’s header was denied by the feet of Samir Handanovic before Rafinha combined nicely with Suarez but failed to finish.
It was a warning, because the same pair connected again for the opening goal. Rafinha started the move, the ball spilling out of a midfield tussle and into his path. He sent it right to Suarez, whose chipped cross reunited with Rafinha, who had continued his run and sidefooted home.
Coutinho went closest to another before half-time, his free-kick deflecting inches wide, but Inter had a better spell after the break.
Ter Stegen had to scoop away a Perisic cross and Matteo Politano, on as a substitute, should have capitalised on some careless defending.
Barca came again. Suarez wiggled through, Lenglet hit Handanovic from close range and Coutinho struck the crossbar after a sensational counter-attack, begun by a brilliant Arthur flick.
Arthur departed to a standing ovation soon after and with eight minutes left, Alba finally made sure of the win.
He pushed Ivan Rakitic’s ball past Milan Skriniar and drove into the far corner. There was there still time for one more Messi chant before the final whistle blew.
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