By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Barcelona came through their first test without the injured Lionel Messi, earning a convincing 2-0 win at home to Inter Milan to take control of Champions League Group B on Wednesday.
Midfielder Rafinha opened the scoring against the club where he spent the latter half of last season, bursting through the middle and finding Luis Suarez, then turning the Uruguayan’s cross in on the volley in the 32nd minute.
Spanish left back Jordi Alba killed off Inter’s resistance late in the second half with a thumping low finish, snapping the Italian side’s winning streak of seven games in all competitions and sealing a third straight win in the Champions League for Ernesto Valverde’s side.
Barca top Group B with nine points while Inter are second on six, and a victory for the Catalans in the return fixture at the San Siro in two weeks’ time will practically seal their place in the last 16 of Europe’s elite competition.
With Argentine talisman Messi watching on from the stands, his right arm in a cast after fracturing it against Sevilla on Saturday, the Catalans initially appeared to lack some of their usual swagger.
They survived an early scare when a low cross fell to Inter captain Mauro Icardi but the Argentine, a former Barca youth player, sent the ball over the bar.
Barca soon began to dominate the game, however, with Brazilian midfielder Arthur Melo dictating the pace from deep in a manner reminiscent of former midfield great Xavi. He helped Barca monopolise possession and starved Inter of any memorable chances before the break.
The Italians reacted well after the interval and had a couple of dangerous spells without troubling Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
But Barca quickly retook control and Alba wrapped up a win which should give them plenty of confidence heading into Sunday’s ‘Clasico’ against Real Madrid and, above all, the belief they do not need Messi on the pitch to beat one of Europe’s best sides.
(Reporting by Richard Martin; editing by Clare Lovell)