Inter Milan held title-holders Barcelona to a 0-0 draw in their UEFA Champions League Group F opener at the San Siro on Wednesday in a match which failed to live up to hype.
The game was billed as a clash between Samuel Eto'o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, both playing against the team they left only two months ago, but neither they nor talents such as Lionel Messi and Xavi could break the deadlock in a turgid stalemate. Perhaps unsurprisingly for such a big match between two European heavyweights so early in the competition it was a cagey affair dominated by defences.
But that suited Inter boss Jose Mourinho. "It's the beginning of the competition, it's the first match. It's not an easy group, it's no joke," he said. "There are other groups that seem like a joke and one without a single national champion, in ours there are four champions.
"It's a good point against the European champions who at the moment play the best football in Europe. I'm happy with the way we played, with the concentration. Defensively the game went well."
Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola said his team needed to create more to win the game but did not point the finger of blame at Ibrahimovic, who had a largely quiet game. "Maybe we didn't have many chances but it's never easy to play against Italian teams. There's nothing more to it, we just didn't have many chances," he said. "Ibrahimovic did well, he had a good chance in the first half. Less so in the second but it's never easy and he kept trying so I'm happy with him."
Champs start brightly
Barcelona were quickly into their running, passing the ball around confidently. Messi needed only two minutes to work some space on the edge of the box but his shot was too close to Julio Cesar in the Inter goal. The Spaniards were dictating play and Brazilian right-back Dani Alves released former Inter striker Ibrahimovic on eight minutes with a simple diagonal crossfield ball.
It was the chance the big Sweden forward must have been dreaming of in the build up to the game as he sought to silence the critics who jeered him on his return to the club he walked out on in the summer. His first touch to control the ball on his chest was exquisite but the grandstand finish he craved did not materialise as he sliced his right-foot volley high and wide.
Alves was finding acres of space down the right as Sulley Muntari failed time and again to track him and the Brazilian picked out Messi with a cross but the little Argentine wizard's header lacked power. It was almost the half-hour mark when Inter managed to gain a foothold in the game and a long ball released Diego Milito who turned inside Gerard Pique but shot too close to Victor Valdes. Moments later Eto'o teed up Wesley Sneijder but the former Real Madrid midfielder couldn't keep his shot down.
Barcelona should have gone in front on 41 minutes as an inch-perfect Xavi chip over the defence picked out Alves, but his first touch took him backwards and he opted to play the ball back to Kader Keita rather than shoot, with the Malian midfielder screwing his effort well wide. In the last minute of the half Messi cut in off the right wing in typical fashion but Cesar was equal to his shot.
Inter started the second half well with Sneijder firing just wide on 47 minutes but Barcelona quickly re-asserted control without creating more than a half chance. The Italians were still lively on the counter-attack and Eto'o released Milito on 66 minutes but the Argentine hesitated before setting up substitute Dejan Stankovic whose shot dipped just over.
Barcelona finally created a gilt-edged opportunity when Thierry Henry's scuffed shot on 73 minutes squeaked through to the edge of the six-yard box where both Messi and Alves ran onto it. But the Argentine, over-stretching, nicked the ball off the better-placed Brazilian's foot and cleared the crossbar.