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Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Inter Industry Stifles Barcelona

So it wasn't goalless after all. Jose Mourinho added another notch to his tactical bedpost with only his third career victory over Barcelona, but his Serie A side did it by applying a bit of traditional Italian resilience to their interpretation of the existing Barcelona blueprint.

The formations were identical. Barca saw Xavi tuck in behind their expected front three and Busquets and Keita used as holding midfielders. Inter lined up as they had at Stamford Bridge, surprisingly so, with Sneijder playing behind Milito while Pandev and Eto'o supported wide. Bold, even at the San Siro and especially by Mourinho's standards.

But it was not principally among these two front fours that the first leg of this semi final was decided. The deployment and mentality of the teams off the ball, as well as their ability to actually defend, held the key.

While Barca's response to losing the ball is to win it back as if their lives depend on it, Inter were quite prepared to soak up pressure. After all, it can take seconds to score a goal. Whether you've spent the previous ten minutes knocking around one-touch passes with gay abandon or kicking Messi and hoofing the ball over the halfway line is probably not a discussion that concerns Mourinho.

Inter's positional discipline won out over Barcelona's free spirits. Off the ball, they didn't panic during Barcelona's 65% of the possession, but were solid, organised and crucially, not afraid to put a foot in where many would be spellbound. On the break, they attacked in numbers, at pace and made a mockery of Barcelona's back four. Or at least two of them.

Having been guilty of some impossibly inept defending in the lead up to Barca's goal, Maicon improved. Meanwhile, having been guilty of getting sucked in towards the ball for Inter's first, Dani Alves was notably absent again as Sneijder nodded the ball across goal for Milito to score the third. With Barca's full-backs so often caught high up the pitch, Sneijder knew that a ball behind Barca's centre-backs would rarely be covered. In the event, most were uncharacteristically overhit, but when the space was exploited, Inter threatened. In the context of the game in general, strong, powerful strikers in advanced wide positions are not opposition that Barca's full backs are used to dealing with, especially with Sneijder enjoying sufficient freedom to roam and gang up on them with his forwards.

Maicon and Zanetti, the former's abberation aside, were committed first to defending, while Barcelona's pair are not defenders. Inter played on this and didn't allow Alves or Maxwell to escape their defensive duties, negating their exuberance going forward, while Mourinho had the luxury of knowing that while Maicon galloped upfield, Zanetti was unlikely to venture far beyond the halfway line. The Argentine even perpetrated that rarest of tricks – a perfectly-timed tackle on Lionel Messi.

This, amid other things going wrong for Barcelona on the night seemed to send Andy Gray into patronising overdrive. Not once was Xavi referred to without the prefix 'little', nor were we spoiled for references to the 'little genius'. With Ibrahimovic also playing like he was 5' 2 and Pedro completing the attacking quartet, size was not on Barca's side. Inter, by contrast, can hardly be described as diminutive, as their defending at times testified. Despite this excellent performance, however, they may have to stand even taller in the Nou Camp. Rob MacDonald

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