In what many prematurely deemed the Champions League decider, Inter Milan and Barcelona met up for the first leg of the semifinals at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in Milan, Italy.
Barcelona might have been labeled the odds-on favorite in this semifinal, but defending Serie A champions Inter Milan surely weren’t intimidated behind the coaching of Jose Mourinho.
The San Siro was buzzing at kickoff of this highly anticipated match between two of the best sides on the planet.
The match started off a bit cagey as both sides were comfortable to feel each other out and develop some half chances.
Inter did well to neutralize Barcelona’s possession and attack attempts early on and that eventually led to the first real attack of the night in the 17th minute when Esteban Cambiasso found a lurking Samuel Eto’o just outside the area where he patiently waited before aiming a side-footed lefty effort that forced Barcelona keeper Victor Valdes into a diving save. Diego Milito was able to run onto the rebound only to send it rolling across the goalmouth from an acute angle.
Barcelona were quick to respond with an attack of their own in the 18th minute when Maxwell was given a free path to the byline, thanks to a spectating Maicon and Lucio, where he promptly grounded a perfect ball to the on-running Pedro who casually slotted home the opener giving Barcelona a big away goal and a 1-0 lead.
The next major chance was in the 27th minute when Pandev tipped Milito through on net from the corner of the area only for Milito to send it wide of the far post as it lacked bend. This opportunity was surely one that the Argentine would have liked to have again.
But it didn’t take long for Milito to redeem himself as in the 30th minute a soft Eto’o cross was gathered by a backtracking Milito on the penalty spot, where he garnered the attention of three Barcelona defenders only to lay off to the wide open Wesley Sneijder who wrong-footed the keeper in slotting home the equalizer leading to a 1-1 tie at the half.
The second half began with a bang, as Inter hit the pitch anxious to take it to Barcelona and in the 48th minute Eto’o freed Milito on the wing who placed a perfectly paced ball into the path of a surging Maicon, who calmly flipped up the ball while shielding off his defender and slipped it past the keeper for a smooth strike to give Inter the 2-1 lead.
After a crucial diving stop by Julio Cesar was made to deny Busquets of a headed equalizer Inter were back on the attack in the 61st minute where they managed to tally a third goal. Eto’o provided the splendid cross for an on-running Sneijder who miss hit his header but sent it to the far post where Milito was in position to nod it home. Replays show Milito to be a half step offside, but the linesman was out of position and missed the call.
Inter might have been dealt a serious blow in the 71st minute when a jumping Lionel Messi’s shoulder smashed into Maicon’s face forcing the Brazilian back to be taken off on a stretcher in serious pain.
The final 15 minutes consisted of an attacking Barcelona side trying to pound home a goal to give them a hold in this semifinal, but a strong Inter defense held its ground and prevented such an occurrence. But they almost paid the price in the 84th minute when Daniel Alves fell to ground in the area after claiming contact from behind from an out of position Wesley Sneijder. Alves was cautioned for simulation, but after viewing the replay it is debatable for both sides, as Sneijder was clearly out of position, but there was hardly much contact at the same time.
So at the conclusion of the first leg Inter hold the 3-1 advantage.
Inter did extremely well in frustrating the normally free-flowing Barcelona attack by clogging their passing lanes and applying plenty of attention to Messi and Xavi. They also responded particularly well after allowing an uncharacteristic goal on their own end. The Nerazzurri did well to take advantage of the risk-taking Barcelona side, who kept on pushing their entire squad too far up the pitch. Inter clearly showed why possession statistics tend to be misleading.
Barcelona will feel unlucky after this first leg because of the bulk of possession they had, but they will also realize that they were clearly out-finished and a lot less organized in defense. There will be cries for a Milito offside on the third goal, which look to be legitimate, and also shouts for a penalty on the Sneijder challenge on Alves in the box, which is debatable due to Sneijder's positioning but also a lack of real contact.
In the second leg, Barcelona will not be a panicked side. They defeated Inter 2-0 at home earlier in this competition in the group stage and a repeat performance would see them through to the Final on the away goals tiebreaker. Inter on the other hand will also be confident, as an away goal would put them in an ideal position to knock off the defending champions barring a disaster in defense, which in unlikely behind the management of Jose Mourinho.
Julio Cesar 6.5- The Brazilian keeper was helpless on the lone goal, but assured his side the victory with some big-time saves, one being on a close range Busquets header.
Zanetti 7.0- The Argentine continues to show a full tank of energy and heart as he put on another superb display in defense. Filtered Messi into traffic and contained any Barca player who came his way including Daniel Alves.
Samuel 7.0- The center back held his position well and broke up many passes sent into the area. Vital clearances and strong performance in the back. Played key role in shutting Ibrahimovic out.
Lucio 6.0- The Brazilian started off miserably. Multiple giveaways and sloppy on the ball in his own end. Claims fault for his lackluster positioning and effort on Barca goal as he took an errant path to the attacker. Massive recovery in the second half, which included multiple key clearances and interventions of attack. Huge clearance off the line behind a sprawling Julio Cesar.
Maicon 6.5- The Brazilian also started slow and was at fault for the Barca goal. Was lazily out of position. More than made up for it though with a vital goal that gave Inter the lead and a burst of confidence early in the second half. Was stretchered off in the 73rd minute when a jumping Messi shoulder pounded into his face.
Cambiasso 7.5- The Argentine has once again proved he is the vital piece to the Inter defense. Constantly dispossessing Barcelona attackers and a key disruptor in the majority of Barcelona advances. Was key to frustrating Messi and even Xavi at times. Also linked well with the attack on his few distributions.
Thiago Motta 6.5- The midfielder was rather sloppy in first half, but in the second half was key to toughness in the midfield. Slick tackle led to Inter goal.
Sneijder 7.0- The Dutch playmaker was always looking for space and the ball and always kept a creative mindset. Tucked in the first goal with patience and composure and assisted on the third despite it not being completely intentional with a backpost header.
Pandev 5.5- The Macedonian touched Milito through for an excellent chance in the first half, but wasn’t a huge producer other than that. Did well to keep Alves attention throughout his stay. Subbed out in the 56th minute.
Eto’o 6.5- The striker was constantly hustling and clearly turned it up a notch for his former team. Was critically involved in the majority of Inter’s attacks. Did well to retreat to Inter’s own end to help win back possession and pressure Barca in possession.
Milito 7.5- The Argentine didn’t seem to have his touch and finishing ability early on, but clearly redeemed himself by playing a critical role in all three goals. Showed good balance and adjustment to gather and lay off to Sneijder for the first goal. Assisted on the second goal also with a perfectly paced and placed ball for the driving Maicon. And finished off the third goal with a far-post header in which he was offside by a step. Subbed out in the 75th minute after cramping up.
Balotelli-4.5 Mishit a few balls and brought his normal negative energy to the pitch.
Valdes 5.0- The Spanish keeper can’t assume any of the blame for the second or third strike, but the first goal could have been avoided with proper reflexes and without the misguided lean.
Maxwell 6.0- The Argentine didn’t bring much to the defense as many of the key attacks began from his position, but was the creator of the lone Barca goal. Did well to get to the by-line and place a perfectly grounded ball to the running on Pedro for the finish.
Pique 5.5- The center back was caught out of position on numerous occasions. Was key to the late push in attack for Barca, but he failed to convert his numerous half chances.
Puyol 5.5- The Spanish center back was caught out of position on multiple occasions and was also booked for his foolish tackle, which will cost him the second leg.
Alves 5.5- The Brazilian barely made an impact on both ends of the pitch. Was outplayed by the elder Zanetti on numerous occasions. Had a cry for a penalty late in the second half but was booked for simulation instead.
Busquets 5.0- The midfielder was outworked and outhustled in the center of the pitch. Missed opportunity with second-half header that could have changed the whole semifinal.
Keita 5.5- The midfielder failed to leave an imprint in the midfield. Was beaten on the majority of his opportunities.
Xavi 5.5- The Spanish playmaker was frustrated and locked down for much of the match. Couldn’t display his normal touch and passing display due to a tough collapsing Inter defensive midfield.
Pedro 6.0- Was the lone goal scorer for Barcelona on a professional finish in the first half.
Messi 5.5- The Argentine was contained and quiet for the majority of the match. His few penetrations were all intervened and his free kicks and lone shot were the only efforts on net of which all were handled casually by the keeper.
Ibrahimovic 5.0- The Swedish striker wasn’t able to produce or have an impact up front before being subbed out in the 62nd minute. Questions will arise if he was fit enough for the match.
Referee- Olegario Benquerenca 6.5-