Milito outshines Messi as Inter wins big

Milito outshines Messi as Inter wins big

Published Apr. 20, 2010 10:18 p.m. ET

Most expected an Argentine flavor during the proceedings tonight at Milan's Giuseppe Meazza Stadium.

But no one would have predicted that 30-year-old Diego Milito would be the Argentinean orchestrating the match.

In a game where Lionel Messi and Barcelona were widely supposed to continue their seemingly inexorable march to a repeat title, it was Milito who stole the show, leading Inter Milan a step closer to the Champions league final in Madrid with a surprising 3-1 first-leg win over defending champs Barcelona.

After a pair of early misses that looked costly at the time, Milito set up two goals and scored one as Inter built up a two goal advantage that will ask everything of Barcelona when the teams meet next Wednesday at the Camp Nou.

The scoreline was perhaps unfair to the Catalans, who could have walked away with a draw on the night, but all credit must be given to Inter’s stifling midfield play that removed Messi as a factor.

The Champions League semifinals roll on tomorrow in Munich with Bayern playing host to Lyon.

There were glimpses of Barca's ability to move the ball brightly, but for much of the evening the Italian defense in depth kept the danger at bay. Messi made some openings but he was not able to influence the outcome as Milito did at the San Siro.

Barcelona’s goal, just 19 minutes in was a clear reminder of why they are the champions and remain very much in the tie, but it proved to be a misleading roadmap for the night.

It came after a cautious start during which Messi hardly touched the ball and the Spanish champions were playing at nothing more than a walking pace. In fact, it almost appeared that they were interested only in making Inter work through midfield, their high back line daring the hosts to try to slide balls past the offside trap.

Inter had made inroads just a minute before falling behind. Samuel Eto'o let fly from 22 yards, forcing Victor Valdes to parry into the path of Milito, but his shot flashed across the face of goal, not close to finding the net.

Perhaps awakened by that alarm, Barca swept to other end, then capitalized when Walter Samuel and Lucio were at loose ends trying to control what did not appear to be a dangerous threat. When the ball broke to Maxwell on the left the Brazilian back accelerated to the byeline and cut a pass back for Pedro to finish with precision.

It was against the run of play, but hardly out of character for Pep Guardiola's team to exact full punishment for the most apparently innocuous of mistakes.

Yet, instead of opening the door for a night of Barcelona magic, the goal galvanized Inter and they slowly squeezed the game into their definition.

Milito missed a second excellent chance but made amends on the half hour when his quick control-and-turn lured three defenders to him. He did not shoot this time, instead spotting Wesley Sneijder wide open in the space vacated by Dani Alves. Just as Pedro had stroked the ball home at the other end, the Dutchman offered Valdes no chance to stop his equalizer.

When they reached the interval level you suspect that Pep Guardiola felt better than did his counterpart, Jose Mourinho, under tremendous pressure in Italy to reach the finals. That changed almost immediately, Milito making another opening in the first minute of the second half, then feeding the pass for Maicon to nick a go-ahead strike in the 48th. By stepping up the pace from the restart, Inter had grabbed the initiative.

Inter then swept in to get its third with Milito the finisher with his head in the 61st minute. He was alone to cap a move that included the whole Inter strike trio. Eto'o's cross from the right found Sneijder placed to head back across goal. The Barcelona defenders' arms went up, but the flag stayed down and Milito put it firmly past the 'keeper.

The night ended early for the man of the match when he cramped after a 75th-minute run and went off in favor of Mario Balotelli. By then he had done quite enough to ruin Guardiola's night and sow the seeds of a possible return to European glory for Mourinho. For the Italian game, no longer regarded as the best Europe can offer, the night was a much-needed boost.

Barcelona's final, smothering 20 minutes will remind them and their fans that all is far from lost.

Without the heroics of Lucio and Julio Cesar, Barcelona easily would have taken the game back. They likely will need a fast start next week, but the quality is there to make Inter pay if they try to protect what they have rather than continuing to ask questions of the Spanish defense.

Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for covering the Champions League and European football.