BARCELONA // Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic remained on the sidelines, but Barcelona did not need their stars strikers as they beat Inter Milan 2-0 to go back to the top of Group F in the Champions League. Third in the group before the match and facing the prospect of elimination from the competition they won with so much style last season if they lost and the Russian side Rubin Kazan won, their coach Pep Guardiola described the game as the biggest test of the season so far. An on-looking Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson called it "The Group of Death".
Barca needed to perform like champions and they did. Guardiola was cautious not to rush Messi and Ibrahimovic back from injury and with Sunday's game against Real Madrid in mind he kept both players on the bench - to be used in an emergency if things were not going Barca's way. Despite dominating matches, nerves had gripped Barca in previous European encounters. These disappeared as Jose Mourinho's Inter were outclassed by a Barca side who produced their best performance since May's Rome final.
The scene was set before the game when Samuel Eto'o was greeted so warmly by his former teammates and the huge 96,000 crowd that it appeared to take the edge off his usually feisty game. Eto'o saw little of the ball as Barca dominated from the start and went ahead through Gerard Pique after nine minutes. Two years ago, Pique was left wondering about his future after he was at fault for Manchester United losing a game at Bolton. Today, Barca fans compare him with the legendary Franz Beckenbauer.
Barca doubled their lead after 26 minutes when more incisive passing from Iniesta and Xavi found Daniel Alves. The Brazilian crossed deep for Pedro to volley into the Inter goal. So dominant were Barca, that by the break, Xavi, Seydou Keita, Sergio Busquets and Iniesta had played 153 passes; Inter's midfield made 46. Inter prevented a landslide, in part thanks to their more aggressive game in the second half, but the damage had been done.
"Obviously I feel happier with Ibra and Messi on the pitch but there was a risk I would lose them for a long time," said Guardiola. "I have to congratulate the team for the way they played. It's a great risk to attack the way we did with Samuel Eto'o and Diego Milito against you but it would have sent a bad message to my team if we had changed the way we played." It was unusual to see a side coached by Mourinho show so little conviction. They were as subdued as their 4,500 travelling fans, but the Inter coach was gracious.
"Barcelona are a squad of players who play genuinely well," he said. "The second half changed a little. We got to half-time and Barcelona were playing brilliantly, but we did not lose control. "Some teams would lose three or four because there's such psychological pressure when you are in that position. Barcelona play a high intensity game; they press high and very quickly. And when they have the ball they use it with high-speed passing. That is a real speciality. It is easy to say that they are a better team than we are."
"Unfortunately we were without [injured playmaker] Wesley Sneijder," continued Mourinho. "Messi and Ibrahimovic are good players, but Barca have replacements. We don't have another Sneijder." Inter were outclassed, just as they were by Barca at the San Siro in September's 0-0 draw, but Mourinho said: "We can still win the tournament. Real think they are favourites, Chelsea think they are favourites, Barca think they are favourites. Being beaten by them in the group does not mean that we cannot go on and beat them in the later stages."
Maybe not, but on evidence presented over two games, Inter are short of the quality needed to win the competition. After Tuesday, few would look to any team except against Barca. @Email:email@example.com