Inter Milan’s mission: Block Messi and Xavi

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Inter Milan’s mission: Block Messi and Xavi

BARCELONA - Jose Mourinho and his Inter Milan players managed to stifle Champions League holders Barcelona last week at the San Siro, but doing it again at Camp Nou today is a different proposition altogether.

Inter have one foot in May’s final after the 3-1 home win in their semi-final first leg. But with competition top scorer Lionel Messi, former Inter striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and peerless midfield orchestrator Xavi in the side and close to a 100,000 fans roaring for their victory, Barca are more than capable of reversing the deficit.

“We have to be ambitious and go for as many goals as possible,” Barca defender Gerard Pique said at a news conference on Monday. “Even if we score twice they could snatch one goal and we’ll be out.”

Barca’s hopes of progressing have been boosted by the news that Inter’s influential Wesley Sneijder, arguably their player of the season, may be sidelined with a thigh problem suffered in Saturday’s 3-1 Series A win over Atalanta. Pep Guardiola’s Barca side knocked four goals past both VfB Stuttgart and Arsenal in their last two European home matches, Messi scoring twice against the Germans and all four against Arsenal, and a repeat of their 2-0 success against Inter in the group phase in November would see them through.

History also appears to be on their side. The last two times Barca lost 3-1 in the first leg of a Champions League knockout tie away from home, against Dynamo Kiev in 1993-94 and Chelsea in 1999-2000, they turned things around with 4-1 and 5-1 second-leg wins respectively.

Pique said the support of the Barca faithful would be a key factor tonight.

“I hope to see Camp Nou as I’ve never seen it before and we want the Inter players to hate their jobs for 90 minutes,” the former Manchester United man said.

“I don’t remember the fans being so excited and so confident that we can do it,” he added. “It could be one of the most important matches in Barca’s recent history.”

However, Portuguese Mourinho has made a habit of besting former clubs, and after dispatching Chelsea in the last 16 in February, he has a chance to eliminate the club where he served as assistant coach to Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal. He’ll need to coax another tireless performance from his players tonight if Inter are to secure a first European Cup final appearance since 1972.

Their constant harrying and hassling in the first leg stopped Xavi, Messi and their teammates from playing their customary game based on fluid passing and the long periods of possession with which they wear opponents down. Inter striker Mario Balotelli was dropped from the squad to face Atalanta after arguing with fans and throwing his shirt away after the first-leg win.

“It’s a historic moment for us. We have to give our all,” left back Cristian Chivu, still wearing a protective cap after fracturing his skull earlier this season, told Inter Channel. Barca central defender and captain Carles Puyol and Inter midfielder Dejan Stankovic are both suspended.

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