Barcelona 1 – 0 Inter Milan (agg 2 – 3)
By Sam Lyon
Gerard Pique’s 84th-minute strike was not enough for holders Barcelona as Jose Mourinho’s 10-man Inter Milan held on to reach the Champions League final.
Protecting a first-leg 3-1 lead, Inter were forced to play more than an hour a man short after Thiago Motta saw red for a hand-off on Sergio Busquets.
But theirs was a defensive masterclass in response as Barca failed to fire.
Pique’s shot set up a frantic finale, but Inter deservedly held firm to reach a first European Cup final since 1972.
The Italian giants will now face Bayern Munich at the Bernabeu on 22 May as Mourinho attempts to lead them to a first European Cup for more than 40 years.
And it means Barcelona’s efforts to become the first team to retain the Champions League trophy ended in frustration – though they can have few complaints after a sensationally stoic defensive show from the Italians.
Mourinho’s reaction at the final whistle said it all as he sprinted around the Nou Camp pitch with his hands aloft, a pointed salute to the Barca supporters and media critics who had labelled him “The Translator” in mocking tribute to his time at the club in the 1990s.
And the result was further testimony to the Portuguese manager’s claims to be a “special one” as his side’s tactics, belief and resolve withstood a home onslaught that saw Barcelona run out of ideas until Pique’s late strike.
Emotions and tensions were expected before kick-off to run high, but even for a Champions League semi-final this match surpassed expectations.
An extraordinarily vocal 98,000 Nou Camp played their part, while Mourinho – so often the panto villain – riled the Barcelona faithful and staff alike as a constant and vocal presence on the sidelines.
But, more than that, controversy stalked the match regularly. If the replacement of winger Goran Pandev – apparently injured – with defender Christian Chivu in the Inter line-up minutes before kick-off caught everyone by surprise, the visitors’ high-pressure tactics and gamesmanship frustrated the hosts.
And the decision of Belgian referee Frank De Bleeckere to dismiss Motta was even more contestable.
The Brazilian, already on a booking, did indeed raise a hand when defending the ball and he certainly made contact with Sergio Busquets’ face as he did so, but a straight red card appeared a harsh decision.
Motta’s reaction following the dismissal, man-handling Busquets in protest, only fanned the flames of a high-octane encounter.
Amongst all of that the football was enthralling, if a little light on goal-scoring chances.
The pattern was set early on, with Inter happy to sit deep and flood their defensive areas in protection of their first-leg lead, while the hosts’ passing game was typically fluent but all too often in front of the visitors rather than in behind them.
Twice Xavi had a sight of goal but twice he was crowded out, Pedro flashed an instinctive volley wide from Dani Alves’ cross on 23 minutes, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic had a snap-shot well blocked by Walter Samuel.
The best effort of the first half by far, though, came from Messi, the Argentine’s goalbound curler from 20 yards superbly tipped wide on the stretch by Inter keeper Julio Cesar.
This was a classic match-up of Inter’s defence against Barca’s attack, though Mourinho’s side did have a brief glimpse of goal when Samuel Eto’o found himself in acres of space in the box from Wesley Sneider’s cross, only for his touch to allow Pedro to get back and clear.
The second period was even more one-sided in terms of possession, with almost the entire half played in Inter’s defensive third.
But Inter looking increasingly comfortable as the likes of Messi, Pedro, Ibrahimovic and Xavi probed at their defence without success.
Still, with six minutes of normal time remaining, Barcelona finally broke the Italians’ backline as Pique collected Xavi’s pass, turned inside defender Ivan Cordoba’s sliding challenge and slid home with aplomb.
And for the first time in the match, Barcelona sensed victory.
They almost had it too when substitute Bojan Krkic broke free in the Inter box and lashed into the roof of the net in injury time.
The home supporters’ unbridled joy was short-lived though, as the referee had given a handball against Yaya Toure in the build-up long before.
It was a contentious decision, in keeping with some strange rulings from the officials throughout the night.
However, Inter will argue they deserved their slice of luck, and the match-up of Mourinho against Bayern boss Louis van Gaal, the man under whom he served some of his apprenticeship at Barca in the ’90s, provides a fascinating back-drop to what promises to be an excellent final next month.