The Barcelona team began their long journey to Milan for tonight's Champions League semi-final first leg against Inter by coach on Sunday morning. They stopped for the night on the French Riviera, hoping their unusual travel plans do not affect them like it did the Hannover players who stood for five hours on a train before their weekend game at Bayern Munich. They were beaten 7-0.
Inter and Barca met earlier in this season's competition, where the Catalans outclassed Jose Mourinho's side in Italy but only drew 0-0. Barca won the return leg 2-0, with the Italian side barely touching the ball for large swathes of the game. Despite domestic woes resulting in them losing a 14-point lead at the top of Serie A to Roma, Inter are expected to provide sterner opponents this time around for Barca.
Buoyed by home and away wins over Chelsea in the second round, Mourinho appears to be excelling where Roberto Mancini, his predecessor who won three consecutive Serie A titles with Inter, failed - in Europe. The Portuguese coach can field stubbornly obdurate defensive sides and will not be afraid of parking his side's bus in front of the Inter goal for the return leg at Camp Nou next week. Julio Cesar, the Brazil national team goalkeeper, is excellent and sure to be kept busy, but Inter started a recent match with Christian Chivu, Ivan Cordoba, Maicon, Javier Zanetti, Sulley Ali Muntari, Marco Materazzi, Lucio and Thiago Motta - effectively an eight-man defence. Yet if Inter are to reach a first European Cup final since a 1972 defeat by Ajax, they will need to score at least once.
They do boast some formidable attackers, of which Diego Milito, the sublime finisher, has been their best this season, though most attention will be on Samuel Eto'o, the former Barca striker. The Cameroonian has impressed with his big-game temperament since moving to Milan last summer. That switch was famously part of the transfer which sent Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the other direction, with Inter additionally receiving an astonishing ?40 million (Dh198m).
The deal was messy, with Eto'o still embroiled in legal action with Barca to recoup ?3m he considers still due to him in commissions. It has emerged since that Eto'o is actually on loan at Inter, though there is no chance he will return to Barcelona. Eto'o has calmed his once volcanic temper since moving to Milan and enjoyed a recent return to form, scoring the second in Friday's hard-fought victory over the 10 men of Juventus. He also scored a key Coppa Italia goal against Fiorentina last week which propelled Inter into the final. Eto'o remains highly regarded by most at Barca and the feeling is mutual.
"It's impossible to say that anyone but Messi is the best player in the world at the moment," he told reporters last week. "And it's hard to say that Barca are not the best side, but football's funny and anything can happen." Ibrahimovic, the man who took over Eto'o's locker at Camp Nou, will be greeted warmly in San Siro. He has overcome the injury which kept him out of most of Barca's recent successes, but came off the bench in Saturday's derby at Espanyol. He has enjoyed a solid first season at Barca, though anyone pales when compared to Messi.
Aside from long-term injury to Davide Santon, his left-back, Mourinho should be able to select from a full squad. Barca have sold 5,400 tickets - a huge number for a club not renowned for their travelling support, though most of those were aiming to fly and are likely to be hit by travel restrictions. They just hope that the lengthy over-land journey will not exhaust their players. email@example.com Inter v Barcelona, 10.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +3 & +5
Lucio v Lionel Messi A Brazilian against an Argentine is always a battle worth watching. Inter's big centre-back will have his work cut out stopping the world's best player. Thiago Motta v Xavi Once Barcelona get hold of the ball, it is hard to get it off them and Xavi is the man who pulls the strings. Motta, his former teammate, can shackle him. Maicon v Maxwell Teammates at Inter last year before Maxwell's move to Spain, both are full-backs whose first thought is to attack. They play on the same flank tonight. Samuel Eto'o v Victor Valdes The Barcelona keeper has developed into a first-class shot stopper. He will have to keep out Eto'o, who on his game is as clinical as they come.