Champions League Preview: Inter – Barça, 2:45pmEST Wednesday, Fox Sports en Español (FSE).
I flew into Milan on a bright and beautiful morning in November 2006, having left Berlin early enough to catch the sun’s raise hitting the streets for what looked like the first time that day. As we swooped into Malpensa Airport, I was met by the panorama of a city that is know world-wide for being cosmopolitan, for being the nexus of fashion, design, and, lately, aging footballers. It looks stunningly gorgeous, as Italian as it gets, and certainly a welcoming destination. I never did see the Stadio Guiseppe Meazza, though, because I quickly boarded another plane to head to Florence for a week of unadulterated sight-seeing and Tuscan sun basking. On my way back, thanks to an unrelenting bank of fog that closed the Florence airport, I was taken by bus by Alitalia through twisting mountain roads and tunnels and finally back to the airport late at night for a then-delayed flight to Berlin.
None of this was Milan’s fault, of course, but I was left, after my 14-hour travel day that should have been 5 hours long, semi cursing the city for having the temerity to be in my plans on a fairly obliterated day. That I still didn’t get to see the monumental stadium that is the San Siro was merely an added bonus in a long list of pejoratives that I used to describe all things northern Italian for a day or two, when I was able to refocus my distaste for transit authorities and metropolitan areas on the MTA, who, as luck would have it, delayed me a few hours in getting home because of random track work in New Jersey between Newark and Penn Station.
I won’t claim to know much about European history (I took two classes on European history, but very deftly avoided the Renaissance and skipped from Song of Roland type stuff to post-WWII), but I can see how it would be easy to identify our Gallo-Spanish hordes as the second wave of a Visigothic invasion-in-reverse of the Italian peninsula in our modernized Gothic War, the first wave having been our conquest of the Stadio Olimpico under Alaric I, and whatnot and so forth into some sort of muddled comparison of Catalan and Milanese history that ends with a bowl of mental mush and someone pointing out that the Mancunians had nothing to do with the original Gothic War, but were certainly at least caught in the middle of this second one, if they aren’t considered major protagonists in some other pseudo-intellectual grab-bag of crazy that leads us to all be screaming “Spanish Armada! Spanish Armada!” and waving gladiator swords around. Oh.
Modernity has its pluses and minuses, of course, one of the major parts of the latter being the distinct lack of sustained armed conflict over football matches (cough El Salvador/Honduras cough) despite the continuous labeling of various clubs as “empires” by all and sundry, yours truly included. Were this a match against Milano instead of Internazionale, for instance, this section would be about eighteen times longer as I went off on a random tangent involving heads of state allegedly sleeping with hookers in Vladimir Putin’s bed (How do you shoot the devil in the back, Agent Kujan? What if you miss?). It’s not, though, so I’ll leave the politics-masquerading-as-football and Senator Palpatine references to the side for the time being and focus on what’s at hand: a titanic clash between two brilliant squads in the greatest international club competition there is. Take that, Copa Libertadores.
Let’s clear one thing up immediately. Inter-Barça wasn’t set up by UEFA because of all the money involved in their transfers any more than Real Madrid-Milano was (my argument is based on the idea that ensuring ManU-Real Madrid matches would be more lucrative and combustible, as would have Chelsea-Barça matches). But it is, in fact, lucrative and combustible, which is fun for everyone unless you’re an Interista or cule who has a heart condition. Then you should probably go hole up in a cave and claim to be an ascetic for a while. You’ll at least get brownie points with some sectors of the general population.
But the thing is, it’s not a battle between Eto’o and Ibrahimovic, as the daily rags would have you believe. They’ll shake hands at the beginning and that’s probably as close as they’ll get to each other throughout the rest of the time. Maybe during a corner one of them will track back and there will be a lovely close-up shot of the two snuggling for a moment, Eto’o laying his head on Zlatan’s chest in a photogenic moment made possible by 700 photographers gleefully blazing away from the sidelines, remembering their editors previously haranguing them for not finding any better shots of Mourinho hugging Samu or Zlatan ripping apart a replica Inter shirt in front of a stunned and soon-to-be-sobbing child. But no, it’s not about them at all, actually. It’s about two sides whose upper managements really should be friendly (and I believe they are); it’s about two competing approaches to the game more than it is about the particular coaches who, in this current climate of hyperbole and personification, embody those approaches. It is 4-3-3 that is really 4-1-2-3 and Total Football versus 4-1-2-3 that is really 4-3-3 or 4-1-2-1-2, meaning, essentially, that it is a match between good sides.
This look is going to be around for a long time, Mou.
Mourinho will never be accused of spontaneity in anything other than his semi-rhetorical outbursts at press conferences and even those are often attributed to pre-planned tactics. However, the same can be said of Guardiola, whose desire for both creativity and structured control is well documented by Hector. I won’t attempt to rise to his level because that would be pointless and demoralizing for me when the final product turned out to be the Reloaded to his original Matrix: lots of dazzling special effects, but no content whatsoever.
The down-and-dirty part of this post, the stats, are a clean slate at the moment. I put no stock in the domestic form of each team and, even if I did, they would be so similar that it would be hardly worth mentioning anyway. Champions League form is what matters, adjustments for the continental competition, and so far we have nothing to go by. Barcelona know how to play this tournament, as evidenced by last year’s title, but Inter are no joke either.
Barça: Valdés, Pinto, Abidal, Piqué, Maxwell, Puyol, Alves, Touré, Chygrynskiy, Sergio Busquets, Keita, Jeffren, Xavi, Iniesta, Henry, Pedro, Ibrahimovic, Messi, Márquez.
Inter: Toldo, Julio Cesar, Orlandoni, Cordoba, Zanetti, Lucio, Maicon, Samuel, Chivu, Santon, Stankovic, Quaresma, Motta, Sneijder, Muntari, Vieira, René Krhin, Cambiasso, Eto’o, Suazo, Milito, Balotelli
The battles are not Eto’o-Ibra, but rather Maicon-Henry, Zanetti/Santon-Messi, Samuel/Lucio-Ibra, Motta/Cambiasso-Xavi, Stankovic/Vieira-Iniesta Yaya-Sneijder, Pique/Puyol-Eto’o, Alves/Abidal-Milito, etc. There are enough combinations I could go on forever, especially if we consider the various starting lineups that could be fielded.
Lineup prediction: Valdes, Alves, Puyol, Pique, Abidal, The Yaya, Xavi, Iniesta, Henry, Ibra, Messi. There is no sense in messing around and if Iniesta is capable of putting in 70+ minutes, he whould start. I can see an argument for including Maxwell in this, but I like Abidal on the wing because of his speed, which would help against Maicon’s forays forward more than Maxwell’s forays forward will help keep Maicon in check. Henry will have a quiet game, I’m sure of it.
Supposedly this is Inter’s starting lineup for tomorrow: Julio Cesar, Maicon, Lucio, Samuel, Chivu, Zanetti, Stankovic, Motta, Sneijder, Eto’o, Milito. It comes from Goal.com so who knows how reliable that makes it, but if it’s true, it’s roughly a 5-3-2, which I’m more than willing to accept despite the obvious dangers of Maicon and Zanetti down the wings. I believe that any 5-3-2 in the world affords us space in the middle because it delivers us an effective 3v3 battle. Xavi-Iniesta-Yaya will defeat any 3v3 defense in the world. I’m confident of that. It’ll be like Chelsea, of course, but I don’t think Lucio and Samuel have the ability to contain a surging trident of Messi-Ibra-Iniesta/Xavi. The x-factor, so to speak will be Chivu’s ability to step up and take away the passing lane which, if successful would then allow Inter’s general ability to counterattack to shine through. They can finish, have no doubt about that, but we’re going to play them like they’ve never been played: with the ball at our feet and moving. I don’t believe that you can effectively press for 90 minutes with a 5 man back line, so Inter would, if that were their lineup, be conceding massive amounts of possession to us and, seeing as we’re the away squad, that’s as much as we could hope for before the opening whistle.
Ibra has something to prove, I imagine, and I think he’ll show up big, with freakish shots from distance to open up the defense and then one-touch passes that slip in Messi behind the defense. Henry, like I said, will be busy on the wings trying to keep Maicon in check, meaning that quick counterattacks could free him, but I think that he’ll be fairly well covered for the most part. What he’ll do for us, though, is keep two defenders occupied while the ball is shot around to the other side. If Maicon is caught slightly out of position, then Samuel/Lucio/Chivu will have to cover (forgive me, I’m not sure who is more likely to play on their right side of defense, though I think it’s Lucio) will have to cover, leaving our 3v3 in the midfield and setting up, effectively, a 2v3 in their favor (Ibra-Messi vs Samuel-Chivu-Zanetti) which could rapidly turn into a 3v3 if Alves is in on that or if Iniesta or Xavi step into the gaps created by their 3v3 mismatch.
It’s going to be a tough game, there’s no doubt about it, but it’s certainly winnable. It is, however, in Italy and no war, even an imaginary recreation of one from the Roman Empire, is won without its wounds. Richmond won’t be taken within 30 days and Group F won’t be won in a day either.
The ref is Wolfgang Stark, a German referee who once sent off Motta and Saviola in a UEFA Cup match against Celtic in 2004 (a match I missed because on that day I was in rural El Salvador away from electricity, much less TV showing second-tier European matches). He should be fair, but if things begin to get ugly, he may very well banish random players.
Official Prediction: 1-1. This is going to be very tense. Our goal will be by Messi, on an assist by Ibra.
Saddle up, folks, it’s on.
New York/EST: 2:45pm
San Diego/PST: 11:45am
Sydney, Australia: 4:45am Thursday
Singapore: 2:45am Thursday
India: 12:15am Thursday