A long-term grudge festers between Barcelona and Inter Milan and, if the major flashpoints of their past duels in Uefa competition happened a decade or more ago, it does not take much to stoke the antagonism.
Barcelona are still fuming about the refereeing of last week’s narrow Inter victory at San Siro, still vexed that their 71 per cent possession somehow translated into a 1-0 defeat.
The result leaves Barca in peril as they prepare host Inter at Camp Nou on Wednesday. The prospect of relegation into the Europa League for a second season in succession is very real.
Defeats at Bayern Munich and at Inter, where two handball decisions went against Barca, have left them trailing Bayern by six points and Inter by three. Losing again to the Serie A side, coupled with Bayern at least drawing with Vikoria Plzen, the makeweights in a tough group, would push the German and Italian clubs into the knockout stage.
Lose out on the financial rewards that reaching the next round guarantee, and Barca would also be confronted with some uncomfortable truths about their economic circumstances.
The club are juggling over €1 billion of debt and, although they found new income streams to fund an expensive and busy summer of recruitment, they came with a long-term bind. The club effectively mortgaged a portion of their future broadcast-rights money over the next 25 years, selling 25 per cent of it to an independent investor. They also sold off a tranche of one of their principal merchandising companies.
The funds raised, and channelled into signing the likes of Robert Lewandowksi, Raphinha and Jules Kounde, among others, were proof of the club’s global appeal and the financial sector’s trust in Barca’s ongoing ability to capture the imagination. That dazzle fades a little with each early exit from the Champions League, the game’s most glamorous club competition.
Inter Milan 1 Barcelona 0: player ratings
Lewandowski’s goals – 12 in 11 games since joining for €45m from Bayern Munich – have helped put Barcelona joint top of the Spanish first division, but as they approach D-Day against Inter, and Sunday’s clasico at Real Madrid, with whom they share the domestic leadership, there is a growing sense of anxiety, of a club feeling under siege.
The president, Joan Laporta, railed against Uefa at the weekend for the refereeing at the San Siro; Xavi called the failure to award a penalty to Barcelona after Inter’s Denzel Dumfries appeared to make contact with his hand, and to rule out a Pedri "goal" because of a perceived Ansu Fati handball “an outrage”.
Xavi would remember vividly the outrage he felt as a player when Inter came to Camp Nou for the second leg of a Champions League semi-final in 2009/10. That talented Barcelona side, under Pep Guardiola, were the defending champions, included the current players Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique and had Xavi and Lionel Messi commanding possession ahead of them. But they lost the tie to a cagey Inter, then managed by Jose Mourinho.
Then, as now, there was a burning sense of injustice after the away leg, which Barcelona had to travel to by bus because all flights had been cancelled due to ash in the skies above Europe from the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, a volcano in Iceland.
Inter won 3-1 that night. Down to 10 men for more than an hour of the Camp Nou leg, Inter progressed, on aggregate, after an ultra-defensive performance and a bad-tempered 1-0 loss to Barca. Mourinho’s men went on to win the 2010 final.
Bayern Munich 2 Barcelona 0: player ratings
More recent Inter-versus-Barca precedents had favoured Barcelona until Hakan Calhanoglu’s precise shot from long distance settled last Wednesday’s contest, and plunged Xavi’s team into emergency mode.
“We have three ‘finals’ ahead of us now,” said Xavi, who acknowledged confidence has dropped since Barca lost on match day two at Bayern. “Three weeks ago, we were flying, and now we’re not. We need to be more consistent.
“In the Champions League, we can’t afford to concede any ground. If the intensity drops, our opponent will take advantage.”
That opponent touched down in Catalonia without some of its menace. Romelu Lukaku remains on Inter’s injury list, as he was last week, and along with Joaquin Correa, the striker, is all but ruled out of the possible starting line-up. Midfielder Marcelo Brozovic is also recuperating.
Xavi has to plan around absentees, too. Kounde, Andreas Christensen and Hector Bellerin, three of the defenders signed during the busy summer recruitment, are out; so is the versatile defender Ronald Araujo, midfielder Franck Kessie, and striker Memphis Depay.