Sneijder 30, Maicon 48, Milito 61
The strangest moment about yesterday’s 1st leg Champions League semi final match at the San Siro was that European Champions Barcelona actually had the lead of the tie. That is the margin of how superior Jose Mourinho’s Inter team were. Stronger, faster and better. There is something quite unique happening with the Nerazzurri. Something that has not been felt since a generation or two before, since they held aloft the European cup in 1965 all those glorious years ago. After their 3-1 win over the reigning champions, the embattled fans who have been in the shadow of their eternal nemesis the red and black of Milan for near on two decades, can now start to believe. Make no mistake Inter have one foot in the final.
You could almost smell the atmosphere at the San Siro yesterday night. Everyone of the Nearzzurri fans seemed as one. Together. We hear the often over used term the 12th man referring to the fans, and this was a clear example of that tonight. The noise was deafening, and it was just what Barcelona did not need after traveling for 1,000 km by bus to Milan after the volcanic eruption in Iceland. Jose Mourinho stuck to his tried and tested team, leaving Mario Balotelli, Dejan Stankovic and Macdonald Mariga on the bench. Barcelona welcomed back Zlatan Ibrahimovic to face his former team and apart from Andres Iniesta who looks set to miss the rest of the season, Barca had a full squad available.
Mourinho had warned that since the pairs last meetings in the group stages of the competition that Inter had improved. Their last meeting here had ended 0-0 but with a dominant Barca led game. The first twenty minutes though belonged very much to the Italian outfit. The Nerazzurri were enjoying more of the play and attacking well on Barca’s left hand side. A tactic they would enjoy all evening. But it was the Catalan giants who would take the lead, after Maxwell a former Nerazzurri player cut back well for Pedro unchallenged to sweep the ball home. It was a defensive lapse from Inter, but would be the only one of the night. Despite Inter having conceded the away goal so early on, the feeling was that the Nerazzurri looked confident in going forward and that the game was far from over. Eleven minutes later Wesley Sneijder who is having the season of his career equalised from a Diego Milito pass in the area.
Milito was having an eventful first half and was continuously livid with the linesman for his constant off sides. The Argentine had a point on a couple of occasions where he seemed to be clean through. His early frustrations would be rewarded later on, and he was arguably the man of the match. The scores were level going into half time, and there was a memorable moment of Sneijder staring at the scoreboard in disbelief, Inter against the odds had created the better chances and could have taken a half time lead.
After the interval, Barcelona made Inter wait for their arrival. A tactic that the Nerazzurri had used themselves just a week before in their Coppa Italia semi final against Fiorentina. The European champions were jeered on their entrance. The second half would get off to a frantic start. Just three minutes into the half and Inter would take the lead. Douglas Maicon the Brazilian defender the scorer- and another assist from Milito. With a 2-1 first leg lead, you would be forgiven for thinking this is how Chelsea were conquered. Inter were now firmly in the driving seat. Lionel Messi quite rightly the greatest player on Earth presently was having a quiet game. But credit had to be given to Inter’s back four. Javier Zanetti in particular – who made a crucial tackle on his countryman in the second half.
Inter looked comfortable on the ball, and Barca’s other play maker the quite sublime Xavi Hernandez was not able to play his usual game as he was constantly being hounded. Yet despite Barca struggling with the flow of the game they could have levelled up through Sergio Busquets. His powerful unmarked header was superbly saved from Julio Cesar from a corner kick. This chance only seemed to reinvigorate the Nerazzurri who counter attacked and incredibly put a third goal past the European champions. This time Milito was on the score sheet. 3-1 Inter. Barca coach Pep Guardiola was heading for his biggest defeat since being appointed 114 games ago.
There was still time for more drama. Maicon was knocked out by the arm of Messi- completely unintentional. But it was a serious injury, and he was stretched off. Soon after the Spanish champions had a strong penalty appeal turned down after Dani Alves had gone tumbling. Portuguese referee Bartolo Benquerenca turned down the Brazilian’s request and added salt to the wounds by booking him. Alves who was being screamed at by some Inter players, genuinely looked close to tears. Barcelona were going to lose their first away European tie for 11 matches. The best team in the world were being beaten by a Serie A side who were believed playing in a league that had distinguished sometime ago.
The performance was par excellence, Inter had produced a result that meant they can now travel to the Nou Camp, lose and still go through. The only real disappointments for Mourinho’s men will be that Stankovic will miss the second leg after receiving a yellow card, the other though seems more serious. That of Mario Balotelli. The Italian youngster was brought on for a tired Diego Milito. At the final whistle, while Inter players hugged and rejoiced Balotelli stormed off speaking to himself and looking rather angry. His future with the Nerazzurri looks uncertain. Still this was a time to celebrate. For the Inter tifosi they are witnessing perhaps the finest Nerazzurri team in the past forty years. For a neutral, Inter have brightened up this year’s edition of the Champions League. Inter the dogs of war with one of the most naturally gifted tacticians we have seen in Jose Mourinho, have climbed out of the shadow of their famous San Siro neighbours. As Bob Dylan once said. The time’s they are a’ changing.