Thursday 23 March 2017

Special plan floors Barcelona

Mourinho's tactical masterclass steers 10-man Inter into final

Henry Winter

Gerard Pique gives Barcelona hope with an 84th minute goal at the Nou Camp. Photo: Getty Images
Gerard Pique gives Barcelona hope with an 84th minute goal at the Nou Camp. Photo: Getty Images

PURE Mourinho, pure theatre, pure controversy. What a night. What a manager. What drama.

After prising Barcelona's fingers from the European Cup, the Special One sprinted on to the pitch to celebrate Inter Milan's progress to the final against Bayern Munich, being confronted by Barcelona's goalkeeper Victor Valdes and leaving only when they put the sprinklers on at geyser speed.

For those distraught Catalans who feel that a tear rolled down the face of the Beautiful Game last night, pointing to Barcelona's statistics of 548 passes completed to a negative Inter's 67, one just had to admire the remarkable resilience of Mourinho's well-organised, well-motivated men.

Even down to 10 men with Thiago Motta's dismissal, even when Gerard Pique scored, Inter refused to yield. Uefa might not have got their dream final, but Mourinho certainly did, ending Barcelona's 'obsession' with reaching their rivals' Bernabeu home.

So, May 22 will instead resemble Mourinho's audition for the Real Madrid job.

He even masterminded a result at the Nou Camp with a team all in white. He even had a verbal altercation with Barcelona players in the tunnel at half-time.

Sounds perfect for Real.

Cartoon

Even though they had known it would be a tough task, one of the Catalan papers had sought to inculcate a determined mood, carrying a cartoon depicting Barcelona fans pushing the team coach towards Madrid.

Guardiola had called for impassioned support and the fans didn't let him down, lighting the fuse for an extraordinary evening by assailing the convoy of Inter fans' coaches with unbelievable streams of invective and gesticulations, even sprinting from the kerb-side bars to bang on the sides.

Some Inter fans responded by mooning. It was the only time somebody turned the other cheek on a night of relentless hostility, the fires stoked further when Motta was dismissed midway through the half. All the dark arts were on parade from Inter.

Goran Pandev strangely injured himself in the warm-up, bringing in the more defensive Cristian Chivu on the left, perhaps to confuse Barcelona. Mourinho pulling a stunt? Perish the thought.

The Special One's tactics had been swiftly apparent. His team defended deep and in numbers, contesting the right of Xavi and Messi to breathe let alone be on the pitch. Then, on the rare occasions when they gained possession, Inter drilled it long to Diego Milito, their lonely frontrunner.

Inter had not come to entertain, a point underlined graphically by the interval stats: enjoying 78pc possession, Barcelona had 330 completed passes to Inter's 43 and seven shots to the visitors' none.

Inter had planned a masterclass in defensive defiance. Wesley Sneijder and Javier Zanetti combined to poleaxe Messi.

Motta felled Dani Alves and was cautioned. Lucio wrestled Zlatan Ibrahimovic at corners. Maicon, gently tapped by Messi, indulged in some blatant time-wasting, lying on the floor, 95,000 whistles in his ears.

magnificent

When they could squeeze through, some of Barcelona's approach play was magnificent, Xavi turning gracefully away from Esteban Cambiasso but surprisingly pausing, allowing the white walls to re-form. Then came Alves, whipping over a cross, Pedro shooting wide.

Barcelona were not shy of subterfuge. Controversy was stirred into this great Nou Camp cauldron after 26 minutes.

Busquets' response when Motta brushed past him was disgraceful, tumbling down, holding his face as if brutally elbowed.

It was almost a tender hand-off, yet Busquets looked like he had been fended off by some rampaging No 8 at rugby not football. Rugby fans must really laugh at footballers at times.

While prostrate, Busquets glanced up to check whether Motta, already cautioned, was on his way.

He was, sent packing by a straight red from referee Frank de Bleeckere. Motta turned into Raging Bull, remonstrating with his Spanish nemesis, even manhandling Busquets before trudging off. Mourinho sarcastically applauded Guardiola's bench and rolled his eyes as if he had known the fates and the officials would conspire against him.

Inter had 10 men, but they also had the Special One, whose prowling presence on the edge of his technical area showed his players he was standing shoulder to shoulder with them in the teeth of this Catalan storm.

Inter's defending was immense, Julio Cesar saving brilliantly from Messi, throwing himself to his right to push away a 20-yard strike from the Argentinian.

Inter manned the barricades expertly. Zanetti put out another Messi fire with nonchalant ease.

Cesar took his dawdling over goal-kicks too far, and was cautioned by De Bleeckere, who ended the half by brandishing another yellow, this time to Chivu for taking out Messi.

Barcelona fans stayed supportive, willing Guardiola's team as they kept crashing into the unyielding ramparts of Inter's back-line.

Barcelona were all possession and little penetration.

In one mesmerising move, the ball sped from Messi to Xavi to Pedro to Maxwell, but the substitute's cross was poor.

Mourinho then went charging down the touchline, over-eager to deliver an instruction to Chivu, and earning a rebuke from De Bleeckere.

Sensing Sneijder tiring, Mourinho removed the Dutchman for a sitting midfielder in Sulley Muntari, once of Portsmouth.

Inter were now almost in 8-1 formation and even Milito dropped deep.

Guardiola desperately juggled his resources to find a way through, withdrawing the anonymous Ibrahimovic and sending on Bojan to much Catalan delight.

Amazingly, Maicon won a corner, although such was Inter's defensive intent that only two of his two team-mates bothered venturing into the box.

Only seven minutes from time did Barcelona break through, an offside-looking Pique spinning away from Inter defenders on to Xavi's pass to place the ball calmly past Cesar.

Too little, too late. Mourinho was off to Madrid.

Irish Independent

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