Inter Milan’s 3-1 victory over Barcelona cemented its transformation from Champions League underachiever to title contender, coach Jose Mourinho said.
The Italian team came from behind last night to beat defending champion Barcelona in their semifinal opener in Milan and secure its fifth straight win in the knockout stages.
“Inter have made their mark in Europe,” Mourinho said in comments on UEFA’s Web site. “We have gone from a small team in the Champions League to a team that now knows how to win.”
Until this year, Inter hadn’t won in the knockout phases of European soccer’s elite club competition since March 2006. Victory in the two-game series would send Inter to its first European Cup final since 1972. It last won the trophy in 1965.
Wesley Sneijder, Maicon and Diego Milito scored at the San Siro last night to inflict Barcelona’s fourth loss of the season in all competitions, denting its chances of becoming the first team since AC Milan in 1990 to repeat as European champion.
Barcelona coach Josep Guardiola said his team had given away “simple balls” and allowed the home side, which had one-third of the possession, to hit on the counterattack. Barca will seek to move the ball around quicker at the Nou Camp in the return game on April 28, he added.
“We will make those 90 minutes last a long time for Inter,” Guardiola said in comments on Barca’s Web site.
The teams also met in the group stage of this year’s competition, playing a scoreless draw in Italy before Barca won 2-0 at home on goals by Pedro Rodriguez and Gerard Pique.
Far From Final
“We are far from reaching the final,” Mourinho said. “We still have a lot to do. Barcelona are the best team in the world when they play at home.”
Inter almost took the lead last night after 17 minutes when a long shot by Samuel Eto’o drew a save from Victor Valdes and the ball fell to Milito, who sent an angled drive across the front of the goal. Barcelona scored two minutes later when Pedro beat Julio Cesar with a low shot from Maxwell’s cutback pass.
After Lucio and Milito sent opportunities wide, Sneijder fired past Valdes to tie the game in the 30th minute. Inter took the lead on a counterattack three minutes into the second half as Milito sent a cross from the right, which Maicon put by Valdes.
Mourinho’s team made it 3-1 in the 61st minute. Eto’o lofted a cross to Sneijder, who headed the ball straight to the ground and into the path of Milito, who nodded it past Valdes.
FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi forced Cesar into a diving save in the 78th minute and Inter defender Lucio made a leaping clearance. Barcelona had a penalty claim rejected after Sneijder appeared to take down Dani Alves, who was instead shown a yellow card for diving by the referee.
Lucio then blocked an attempt by Pique at the near post after a scramble in front of the Inter goal and Cesar caught Pedro’s overhead shot as Barcelona pressed for a second goal.
“We have no excuses,” Guardiola said. “They were always looking to get in behind us and they have very quick attackers. They played in their style, while we weren’t as effective as we have been in other games.”
Mourinho said his team will need to “fight hard” in the return game to seal a spot in the May 22 final in Madrid. The other semifinal begins today when Bayern Munich hosts Lyon.
“We have two choices for the game in Barcelona: get to the final in Madrid or leave Europe with our heads held high,” Mourinho said. “If we don’t win the Champions League this year I’m sure we’ll win it in the near future.”