BARCELONA plunged out of the Champions League last night in a dramatic, frantic clash at the Nou Camp, which saw Inter Milan boss Jose Mourinho celebrate like a man possessed.
And little wonder. His side, 3-1 up after the first leg, had held Barcelona to a single goal despite going down to 10 men after less than half an hour. What a night. What an incredible night.
Inter's Wesley Sneijder said: "Yeah, Jose was screaming at the end, it was an emotional moment. We defended so well with 10 men for so long so a big compliment to the team.
"We were compact, we fought for every metre and gave everything and that's what we said to each other before the game. So we go to Madrid. The manager always has a tactic to destroy the opponent."
Inter's Thiago Motta was right all along. What was it he said in the build-up? "I am not worried about the referee, I am worried about the players who complicate the life of the referee. We're used to seeing Barcelona players diving a lot, so we want to help him."
Sadly, the Brazilian's fears proved founded. After 28 minutes of Barca domination Motta, who spent five years with the Catalan giants, was sent off by fussy Belgian referee Frank de Bleeckere for pushing a hand into the face of Sergio Busquets (see picture above).
True to form, the Barca man went down like a sack of spuds. He'd fall over if a mouse sneezed, that one.
Motta, already booked, was shown a straight red and looked stunned. Rightly. Then he grabbed Busquets by the neck before being dragged away. Rightly. And Barca coach Jose Mourinho, loudly abused by the Catalan hordes on his arrival at the stadium yesterday, applauded the Barca fans, suggesting they might have had something to do with it. Rightly.
On twitter, Derby County's former Wales international Robbie Savage—who knows a thing or two about red cards—raged, "Shocking decision by the ref, come on Inter!" and even Britain's No. 1 tennis player Andy Murray described it as "maybe the worst decision I have seen in sport this year."
Sadly, incidents like that reduced this clash of the titans to a battle of the divers in typical over-fussy European style, with plenty of handbags being thrown. But fortunately, football triumphed over dramatics and Inter got the result they needed to make it to the final.
At halftime, when Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola was having a word with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mourinho came up and let his feelings be known—with some gusto. In some parts of the world, we'd call that a pep talk. In East London, it would be labelled a right telling off.
But somehow, Inter, 3-1 up after the first-leg, had got to the break at 0-0 with 10 men. Oh, and they also suffered two yellow cards. Goalkeeper Julio Cesar—who made a great first-half save from Lionel Messi—was cautioned for time-wasting after just 34 minutes. Then Christian Chivu joined him in the book for a tackle on Messi—though he clearly got the ball with his sliding challenge.
Mourinho made his intentions clear as he attempted to end what he called the "obsession" Barca have about reaching the final against Bayern Munich on May 22 at the Bernebeu, home of their arch-rivals, Real Madrid.
But in the BBC commentary box, prophetic former England international Chris Waddle observed: "There's no zip about Barca. Messi looks tired, Xavi hasn't got that bit extra, Ibrahimovic hasn't given anything so far. They've got to go and have a go, get the ball wide, raise the tempo - because they're comfortably going out as it stands."
With two goals needed in the final half-hour, Guardiola did as Waddle had suggested and took off the 6'6" Ibrahimovic, the Inter striker swapped with Samuel Eto'o last season, and brought on Jeffren. Left on the bench? A certain Thierry Henry.
There goes his World Cup then. And deservedly so after "that" handball in the play-off for France against the Irish in Paris.
With Barca's players—Messi prominent among them—diving in the box like it was an 18-yard swimming pool, Inter held on grimly.
And a note for Arsenal fans. Yaya Toure, brother of Kolo, the man who should have signed for the Gunners four years ago, was having a stinker. Every touch was elephantine, and two of his shots hit the corner flag.
But still, Barca had the upper hand, as they had all game. Referee De Bleeckere needed a chat with Mourinho, who responded by taking off Wesley Sneijder—the Dutchman twisted a knee in the first half—and bringing on the temperamental Sulley Muntari, who got out of Portsmouth before it all went belly-up.
Not since AC Milan 20 years ago has a side successfully defended the European Cup. And holders Barcelona could see their chances going up in smoke as the clock hit 70 minutes with no sign of a breakthrough.
They resorted to throwing the ball in for Messi, 5'5", to win the headers. Never going to happen. The side that dismantled Arsenal looked clueless, even when confronted with 10 men. How does Mourinho do it? Psychology? Presence? A little black magic?
There was still time for teenager Bojan Krkic to miss a glorious chance with his head after a delightful cross from the otherwise formless Messi.
Then, with seven minutes to play, centre-back Gerard Piquet produced the moment of the match. Narrowly onside from Xavi's pass, he took the ball down and delayed his shot, preferring to turn like a giant-sized Messi. He coolly beat the veteran Colombian Ivan Cordoba and planted the ball into the net. Not bad for a big defender.
With 100,00 Catalans roaring, we finally had an atmosphere. And still the Barca stars dived. Daniel Alves tried a full-length effort with half-pike after 88 minutes. The ref, mercifully, waved his pleas for a penalty away.
Then, with 90 minutes played, a dubious corner. Defended. Four minutes of injury time. Bojan, in a desperate attempt to make up for his earlier miss, latched on to a chance and slammed in what looked like the winner. Deafening noise. But referee De Bleeckere had spotted a hand from Toure—a slightly unfortunate ball-to-hand, but a hand nevertheless. No goal. Phew.
Seconds left, the referee gives a bizarre bounce-ball to Barca. One final corner. Fluffed. Full-time. Oh how Mourinho loved it! A special triumph for the Special One.
Victor Valdez tried to spoil his finest moment, but Jose was gone. A nutter in the Nou Camp. Incredible. Screaming, hugging, finger-pointing. And then somebody turned the sprinklers on in an effort to spoil the celebration. But it couldn't dampen Jose's joy. He said: "We were a team of heroes. We sweated blood. That defeat was the best result of my life. This was even better than winning the Champions Leagues."
Come back Jose, we miss you.
Who the hell is Neal Collins (nealcol on twitter)? See www.nealcollins.co.uk.