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Apr 20, 2010

Inter prove European credentials

Energy versus artistry, power versus movement. Was it so simple to tag Inter v Barcelona like this before a ball had even been kicked in what was one of the most anticipated - at least in Italy - Champions League semi-finals in years?

Inter Milan 3-1 Barcelona
Mourinho slams Barca attitude
Balotelli sparks conflict
Guardiola won't blame coach trip
• Champions League Gallery

Perhaps too elementary, but not incorrect. The first half hour proved as much on the pitch. Having chosen the 4-2-1-3 formation that had brought the best out of his side in recent months, Jose Mourinho had seen Inter start off on the wrong foot in the face of some exquisite movement from the visitors, who kept the home side pinned back. They forced them into making mistakes, either by placing one man - Zlatan Ibrahimovic, mostly - in front of one of the central defenders each time they had the ball or by keeping other players so close to the midfielders that none of them could hit precise passes, as Thiago Motta showed one time too many in the opening stages.

One of Inter's weaknesses at the beginning could be detected in Goran Pandev and Samuel Eto'o tracking back too much. It's not that it's a problem itself, but it became one when it helped Barcelona advance their midfielders and defenders and squeeze the space.

That's how the visitors' goal was born: Inter were apparently back defending with discipline, but possession was lost too casually, Maicon and Eto'o were left too deep after Maxwell's run, and both Lucio and Maicon also made a mistake in anticipating a cut-back inside to Seydou Keita, thus leaving Maxwell free to reach the byline and pull the ball back across the area for Pedro to score.

While that attitude helped lure the Barcelona defenders forward and created the opportunity to spring their offside trap, it also prevented Inter from upping the tempo, which is sometimes the only way you can take the game to Pep Guardiola's side and punch holes in their well-organised double-teams and movement.

Counter-attack was the name of the game when Inter scored their second, having apparently come out of the dressing room with a more positive, aggressive attitude. With Barcelona's defence again high upfield, Leo Messi lost possession - fouled perhaps by Thiago Motta - and Pandev, who had a very solid game, broke through by slipping past three men at once. This left the central defenders exposed and retreating and created the numerical advantage that Maicon, again showing his timing in cutting inside, exploited with his right foot.

Thiago, who had a much better second than first half, was again at the epicenter of Inter's third: his stubbornness in regaining possession left Barcelona wrong-footed and retreating, and might give Mourinho some more ideas about the tactical plan for the return leg.

Dejan Stankovic, who had a cameo in the second half and will miss the return leg through suspension, expressed the situation accurately on TV after the game. After all, when you play Barcelona, you have to be mentally prepared to give them most of possession without losing your patience and concentration.

Inter didn't, after their awkward start, and deserved the win despite being content with moving around and keeping their shape during the long stretches of Barcelona possession, which is the least you can do when opposed with that kind of movement, although it appeared at times Barcelona had fewer chances to suddenly accelerate the tempo as they are used to. Interestingly, on both the first and second goal, Inter exposed Barcelona's defence down one of the flanks: Dani Alves was nowhere to be seen - he was actually trying to close down Pandev and Milito - when Sneijder snuck into the area from the left, and Maxwell did a bad impersonation of, er, himself when Milito sprinted onto Pandev's through pass that eventually reached Maicon.

In the wider spaces of Camp Nou, Inter may try to stretch the Barcelona defence again by flooding the midfield and trying to plug spaces and jump into the passing lanes to set up a counter-attack.

Barcelona can indeed claim they were robbed a penalty late in the second half, when Dani Alves was brought down by Sneijder and received a yellow card instead of the deserved spot kick. Reputation may have trumped reality here. It was perhaps the only blemish on an otherwise good display from referee Olegario Benquerenca, who was perhaps not helped by his assistant when Milito was incorrectly flagged offside early in the first half, while Milito himself may have been a shade beyond the last defender when he scored Inter's third.

Only one negative angle threatens to ruin the aftermath of Inter's success: Mario Balotelli, in for a tired Milito, was booed by the crowd after miskicking a pass and failing to hit the target on a speculative shot, and responded by insulting the fans and throwing his shirt away at the final whistle, something which Marco Materazzi, who has the unofficial role of squad enforcer, took strong exception to. Rumours of yet another dressing room confrontation ensued, and the coming days will again see Mourinho try to strike a balance between preparing his side for Atalanta and Barcelona while deflecting the inevitable questions about what even his team-mate Stankovic likened to one of his kids, behaviour-wise. Some praise.

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