By Paul Gardner
It could be that, as far as the soccer world is concerned, 2010 will be remembered as the Year of the Volcano. The year that a volcanic eruption in Iceland greatly disturbed air travel, and meant that Barcelona had to travel by road -- in luxury buses -- to Milan for their UEFA Champions League Game against Inter.
And that meant that Barcelona looked tired and spiritless, and lost the game, 3-1. Which must all have been due to those 600 miles rolling along cramped up in the luxury buses. Which means the volcano might well have decided which team becomes the European champion.
Well, it’s a theory. We’ll never know, but this was certainly an uninspired performance from Barca. Not what we are used to. Where was Lionel Messi, for a start? Hardly noticeable. Zlatan Ibrahimovic didn’t seem to be particularly interested, either. Xavi was as industrious as ever, but without the razor-sharp collaboration of Messi and Ibrahimovic, it all added up to nothing.
So there you have it -- the long bus journey had worn Barca out. Except that ... it wasn’t really like that. If you watched only the last 15 minutes or so of the game, there was only one team in it. Barca looked -- at last -- as dynamic and dangerous as ever. Nothing lethargic about the team then -- and this was at the end of the game!
There’s only one way to make a sensible explanation of Barca’s far-from-brilliant performance, and that is to say that, for most of the game, Inter was better. Quicker-thinking, harder-running, tactically and positionally more astute. Forget the volcano.
So we didn’t see much of Messi, but we saw plenty of another Argentine, Diego Milito, who never stopped running and probing the Barcelona defense; he made himself not only a nuisance, but a dangerous nuisance, a canny player who could control the ball instantly, and who had plenty of ideas about what to do with it once he got it. His reward for all that effort and all that skill was to assist on two of the Inter goals, and to score the third himself.
I suppose I could add that Milito also struck another blow for Inter, when he turned Barca captain Carles Puyol at midfield; Puyol’s only resource was to body-block Milito, a foul for which he was yellow-carded, and will now miss the return game.
No, it wasn’t spectacular, but it was just about as satisfactory an evening’s work as a modern center forward -- always tightly marked, always quickly tackled -- can hope for.
So, if you view soccer this way, the first round goes to Jose Mourinho, who outcoached Pep Guardiola. Maybe -- but one thing needs saying, and that was there was no sign of either overly defensive or physical play from Inter. On the whole, this was a pretty clean, soccer-based victory.
Except that ... that needs modifying. During Barca’s suddenly-awakened whirlwind spell at the end of the game, we got a perfect example of just how referee decisions weigh so heavily. First of all: Olegario Benquerenca, a Portuguese referee for a game featuring Jose Mourinho, arguably Portugal’s No. 1 soccer citizen ... was that a wise choice by UEFA? It didn’t look so good when Benquerenca ignored two very strong Barca claims for penalty kicks.
At the 82nd minute, Dani Alves was clearly fouled by Wesley Sneijder -- no call from Benquerenca, instead a yellow to Alves for simulation, another of the many ridiculous calls that referees make to avoid the problem of having to call a penalty. Six minutes later, Walter Samuel just charged into the back of Gerard Pique and wiped him out -- never getting anywhere near the ball. No call at all from Benquerenca on this one. Just rank bad refereeing.
In the other semifinal, the Italian referee Roberto Rosetti did a much better job, instantly red-carding Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribery for a nasty first-half foul on Lisandro and then sending off Lyon’s Jeremy Toulalan early in the second half for two yellow-card fouls (collected in the space of a mere three minutes!). So both referees had a strong effect on the games -- with a big difference. Rosetti was doing his job correctly, punishing fouls -- it was Ribery and Toulalan who altered the pattern of the game, not Rosetti. But Benquerenca made a hash of things, failing to call the fouls on Alves and Pique -- this time it definitely was the referee who affected the game. Except that ... while Rosetti got things right, his assistant referee erred in not flagging for offside against Milito as he scored Inter’s third -- and mighty important -- goal. Milito knew it was close, he checked with a rapid glance over his shoulder before he raced off to celebrate.
Bayern was the dominant team and deserved its victory over Lyon. The final stats prove Bayern’s dominance, showing the Germans with 66 percent of the ball possession. Except that ... a look at the ball-possession stats in the Inter vs. Barca game reveals pretty much the same figure – 68 percent ... but this time to the losing team. It was Barca who dominated possession while losing the game by a scoreline that brooks no argument and makes mockery of the possession stats.
I’d rate both the return games still wide open. Bayern’s 1-0 lead (on a deflected shot from Arjen Robben -- in fact, deflected so nicely that it would not be inaccurate to award the goal to the deflector, Thomas Mueller, rather than to Robben -- is better than nothing, but clearly less than Bayern would have wished. But 1-0 contains the secret ingredient of these two-leg series: the importance of keeping the away team off the scoreboard in the first game. Lyon has lost its chance of scoring a goal that could count double -- only Bayern can do that now.
Inter, despite those three goals, did not manage to keep Barca from scoring. With Pedro’s goal, Barca now need, minimally, a 2-0 win in the Camp Nou. Mourinho will no doubt devise some wily tactics to prevent such an outcome -- but he must know that he will be facing a much more energized Barca in the second game, a Barca just waiting to erupt . . . not unlike a volcano.