Milito leaves jaded Barcelona on the brink
San Siro erupts with joy as Mourinho underlines his 'Special' credentials
SO Barcelona do have an affliction: travel sickness. In deference to the Icelandic volcano, the Catalan all-stars had embarked on a two-day coach trek just to reach the San Siro and, in the wake of a remarkable defeat that recast the order of Europe's football powers, they were no doubt hoping that Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan would be forced to do the same in two weeks' time.
This was a stunning result for Mourinho, all the more so given that his players had failed to score against Barcelona in three previous attempts and had gone a goal down last night. But galvanised by dynamos including Diego Milito, Maicon and the irrepressible Wesley Sneijder, they not only cancelled out Pedro Rodriguez's opener but glimpsed an opportunity to complete the task at the Nou Camp and advance to the most unlikely final in Madrid.
Truth be told, Barcelona did not have to endure the greatest hardship en route to Lombardy, travelling by luxury coach and staying overnight in Cannes. Indeed, Mourinho, in the all-conquering mindset that comes with snuffing out the lethal threat of Lionel Messi, would no doubt gladly walk his way to the return leg.
Barcelona's passing sequences were just as exquisite as those that unravelled Arsenal in the first leg of a rivetingly one-sided quarter-final, but Inter Milan's doughty defence refused to be so exposed.
Anchored by the formidable Lucio, the Inter back line absorbed the early running of Maxwell and Dani Alves, those tireless full-backs, with relative ease -- at least until they were taught a salutary lesson in how to turn defence into attack before the average player could blink.
Pep Guardiola's master craftsmen are so far above average that it is a great surprise, after Inter's fine win, that their bid to be the first team since Arrigo Saachi's AC Milan to win consecutive European titles is in doubt.
Surely, their profound recent impact on the continental stage demands nothing less. Even if their form did not last, they demonstrated their full capacity to achieve their ambition in the construction of the first goal, winning the ball high up the pitch before Maxwell darted down on a devilish run to the by-line.
Espying the unmarked Pedro to his right, the left-back found the perfect weight for the pass, but questions surrounded the role of Maicon as the Brazilian was caught horribly out of position. Pedro was quick to exploit his freedom, angling a finish beyond Julio Cesar with an aplomb that befitted one of Barcelona's least heralded performers. He might be barely mentioned in the same breath as Messi but already the striker has contributed 20 goals for the Blaugrana this season, in six different competitions.
Thoughts of a seamless passage to Madrid proved premature, however. Milito served notice that Inter would not be cowed with an instant riposte, pouncing on a cross from Sneijder but sliding his shot inches wide of Victor Valdes' far post. At least he fared better than Lucio, who underlined his status as a natural centre-back with one particularly wretched header.
The Inter pressure was gradually gathering, and the breakthrough fashioned by Sneijder, such an inventive presence behind the front two, fully merited. The Dutchman has often been likened to David Beckham for the range of his passing but he proved his forward's instincts last night, sidefooting past Valdes after Eto'o's scuffed cross had been touched on by Milito.
Immediately he turned to the San Siro's seething 70,000-plus crowd in salute but there was a sense of a comeback only just beginning.
Barcelona were rattled. Tellingly, Mourinho was in the dug-out long before the second half started, satisfied that the briefest team talk would suffice after such an auspicious Inter performance. His air of serenity, always ominous for his opponents, was soon explained as Maicon, the fall guy in Pedro's strike, atoned spectacularly.
The move had opened with the unusual event of Messi being dispossessed and the brutish right-back was emphatic in ending it, controlling an awkwardly bouncing ball from Milito to stab his shot beyond Valdes' clutches. The upset was on, and Milito, the temperamental Argentine who had squandered a raft of chances, confirmed it when he surged clear of Barcelona's punch-drunk defence to head in the third. Suspicions of offside will only enrage the Catalans as they look to repair the damage done by this game.
Messi was conspicuous by his absence, an omission he almost corrected when he unleashed a wickedly swerving free-kick that Julio Cesar did well to repel. Barcelona were denied an apparent penalty when Sneijder raked the heels of Dani Alves but for the scoreline they had only their curious listlessness to blame.
Their journey home would take another 16 hours and this time they would feel every second of it. (© Daily Telegraph, London)