Antonio Conte’s Inter left Camp Nou on Wednesday night empty handed, but on reflection the Nerazzurri will take lots of positives from a game they will feel they certainly deserved something out of.
The big news prior to kick-off was that Lionel Messi would start for the hosts and, as could have been predicted, the Argentine would go on to play a pivotal part in the result. Ernesto Valverde maintained Barcelona’s famed 4-3-3, with Conte continuing to use his impressive 3-5-2.
The Italians made the perfect start, with Lautaro Martinez racing through to slot the ball past Marc-Andre ter Stegen. This early lead gave Conte’s men a platform on which to execute their meticulously-prepared game plan. For the remainder of the first half, the Beneamata controlled proceedings and should have extended their lead.
Inter played with intelligence and variation, and theirs was far from a defensive display. In possession, the visitors invited Barca to press but made escaping from it look simple, such was the quality of their play. Their build-up and counterattacking in that opening 45 minutes produced few of the finest passages of play we have seen this season.
Without the ball, Inter were disciplined and calculated - traits that are guaranteed from a team managed by Conte. Reverting to a shape that resembled a 5-2-1-2, Inter were able to funnel Barca into areas where they could squash their attacks. Using this shape allowed Inter to control the Spanish champions and prevented them developing play through the middle of the pitch, restricting the influence of Sergio Busquets.
Inter’s midfield trio closely marshalled their opposite numbers and forced any switches of play to go the long way around, through their defenders and across the pitch. Once the ball found its way into the open space, the Nerazzurri had time to shuffle over, releasing a wing back to close down Barca’s full-back on the ball. The rest of the backline would the shift across and then Inter’s pressure around play would increase, locking the Catalans on to the sides of the pitch, while forcing a number of errors and turnovers.
The front duo of Alexis Sanchez and Lautaro were key in this, too. They would drop deeper to stay connected to the rest of the team, allowing them to apply pressure from behind and help keep play predictable.
The first half was managed expertly and Inter deserved to be ahead, but missed chances would come back to haunt them. The second-half introduction of Arturo Vidal changed the dynamic in Barcelona’s favour. The energy of the former Juve’s man and high pressing disrupted Inter’s midfield chain.
Antoine Griezmann and Messi were now occupying central areas and that helped create an overload in Barca’s favour. Sergi Roberto and Nelson Semedo were now receiving the ball deep in Inter’s half as opposed to the half way line. Now Inter were being pulled around and, after Luis Suarez had found an equaliser, it felt like the hosts would inevitably find the winner. Diego Godin had spotted the danger on the first goal, but Antonio Candreva never responded and on the second, Inter’s Uruguayan let compatriot Suarez outfox him. Two clinical finishes were the difference between the teams.
Understandably, Inter began to tire as the game wore on but still maintained a threat, even if their counterattacks became less frequent. Ultimately, Conte’s team fell short and now face a struggle to escape Group F. With back-to-back games coming up against Borussia Dortmund, they will need six points to stand any chance.
Despite the final score, Inter will certainly be boosted by their display against Messi and co. They can use last night’s defeat to fuel them on Sunday evening, when they have the small matter of the Derby d’Italia to work through.