Saturday, August 28, 2010

Inter wall stands firm

Once in a while we get reminded that there are lies, damned lies and statistics, and the return leg of the Champions League semi-final between Barcelona and Inter may well be added to the list of events triggering such a cliché.
Inter wall stands firmValdes has shown his fiery side this season

Possession, for example, was overwhelmingly in favour of Barcelona, as it had been last week, but can you name another instance where it counted for less? Once Inter were reduced to ten men, midway through the first half, tactics became less important than focus - which in itself makes up a lot of the scope which you prepare tactics for - and heart, of which the Nerazzurri showed a lot.

It may be said Inter went through on points, having won the tactical battle in the first leg and cancelled out Barcelona's numerical advantage in the second, and one cannot help but think that it was Jose Mourinho again showing his character, his thoroughness in preparing for the opposition and his ability to channel his aggressiveness to the players.

He defiantly stood in the middle of the Camp Nou pitch one hour before the game, once again inviting and absorbing abuse - there had been a lot of El Traductor jibes in the week leading up the game, with a nod to his experience as Bobby Robson's translator in the late 90s - and taking in the breathtaking view of a ground that was filling up with noise and colour.

Then, as soon as the game started, his preparation showed again: when Goran Pandev failed a fitness test right before kick-off, he had to switch from his chosen 4-2-1-3 to a 4-3-1-2 with a peculiar look. Cristian Chivu was deployed on the left of Thiago Motta and Esteban Cambiasso, helping out Javier Zanetti whenever Dani Alves wandered into the area while also keeping an eye on Lionel Messi inside. Samuel Eto'o and Gabriel Milito were frequently seen wider than they usually would in a two-striker set. Meanwhile, Wesley Sneijder was anchored in the middle of the park, acting at times as a withdrawn centre-forward rather than a trequartista, and also tracking back in Xavi's footsteps.

Once again, despite some early trouble when Cambiasso was booked for a foul on Messi who had beaten him in a one-on-one situation, Inter provided a steady dam in front of the central defenders. Rarely did Messi or one of his team-mates threaten to shoot (on one chance, Julio Cesar tipped the ball wide with a great save), and it must be noted how Inter did not concede free-kicks from dangerous positions throughout the game, an encouraging display of discipline.

When Motta - who ironically had warned Inter about the Barcelona players' penchant for theatricals - was sent off for a slap to Busquets' face, the Nerazzurri quickly reorganised. Chivu was moved inside to partner Cambiasso (and was lucky not be shown a red card for a retaliatory foul near the end of the half), Eto'o effectively moved outside to left winger and the result was a 4-4-1-1 with Sneijder and Milito switching responsibilities in the centre and on the right.

The amount of dirty work the three forwards did was later shown in the fact they were all taken off once it became more a matter of keeping men behind the ball than threatening to score, although one can make a case for always keeping at least one man up front to prevent an opponent from pouring forward with all available bodies.

Barcelona never had a real chance to up the tempo and to accelerate, as they like to do, because there was simply no room to do that, and because Inter had possession for such a short amount of time that you could not really take the ball away from them and start a break before they had reorganised.

Inter wall stands firmSamuel Eto'o celebrates Inter's win

Forced to carry the ball around the very visible wall that had been erected at the 25-metre line, the home side were frustrated in their attempts to find a direct channel, as they managed to do very late when stand-in striker Pique scored despite the addition of Ivan Cordoba as a third central defender.

Reopening play with a pass to the flanks, trying to pull the edges of Inter's defence apart, was not effective, as Maicon and Zanetti were given a lot of help from their team-mates, among them the late subs Sulley Muntari and McDonald Mariga.

A classic match, it was not, with goal attempts few and far between. The more spectacular, brilliant side were stifled over two games, and the more consistent, aggressive, determined team went through.

Perspective will be reversed for the final, as Inter will be clear favourites and will then have a different mental game to play with. But, as a calm, and collected - but clearly elated - Mourinho said right after the final whistle, attention must immediately be turned to Sunday's Serie A clash at Lazio, then next week's Italian Cup final against Roma. Bayern, for now, are a distant thought.