After 38-year wait, Inter Milan heads back to Champions League final

Thirty-eight years have passed since Inter Milan last appeared in the final of Europe’s most prestigious soccer competition.

Back then, in 1972, it was known as the European Cup, and the Italian club lost to a Johan Cruyff-inspired Ajax Amsterdam in Rotterdam.

On Wednesday — with a Portuguese coach, Jose Mourinho, and with not one Italian player on the field — Inter Milan again made it to the big show, reaching the final of what is now called the European Champions League.

It ousted defending champion Barcelona, 3-2, on aggregate, even though it was beaten, 1-0, in front of 93,000 at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona. Inter’s offense had produced a 3-1 first-leg victory in Milan last week, and its defense made that stand up Wednesday.

In the May 22 Champions League final in Madrid, Inter will play Germany’s Bayern Munich, which defeated Olympique Lyon of France, 4-0 on aggregate, in the other semifinal series.

Barcelona had 75% of the possession and outshot Inter Milan, 12-1, but try as it might Lionel Messi and company could not conjure up the two goals needed to win the series.

At the final whistle, Mourinho sprinted onto the field, raising his arms and pointing into the night sky. The self-proclaimed “Special One” was hired specifically to take Inter back to the pinnacle of the European game, and in only two years he has delivered.

“It’s an incredible joy,” Mourinho said. “The players left blood out there and the fans were marvelous.”

It was a gritty performance by Inter, especially after it was reduced to 10 men in the 28th minute when midfielder Thiago Motta was red-carded for shoving his hand into the face of Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, who made the most of the foul.

Inter packed eight men behind the ball right from the start, with four defenders and four midfielders assigned specifically to keep Barcelona off the scoreboard.

They succeeded until six minutes remained in regulation, when Gerard Pique scored for Barcelona from what appeared to be an offside position. The goal stood, but Belgian referee Frank De Bleeckere disallowed another by Barcelona’s Bojan Krkic in injury time, ruling that Yaya Toure had handled the ball before Krkic’s shot.

“It’s tough with 11 players against Barcelona,” Mourinho said. “With 10, it’s a historic feat.”

Barcelona’s ouster means that no team has successfully defended the title in the Champions League era, which began in 1992. The last team to win back-to-back European titles was AC Milan in 1989 and 1990.

“We knew we would suffer in this marvelous stadium, but we did what we had to do tonight,” said Cameroon international striker Samuel Eto’o, who was traded to Inter Milan by Barcelona during the off-season for Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a boatload of cash.

It was Inter’s South American connection that did the heavy lifting. Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar pulled off a superb fingertip save against Messi in a game-turning 33rd-minute moment. Brazilian right back Maicon and centerback Lucio were excellent, as were Argentine center back Walter Samuel and left back Javier Zanetti.

In fact, eight of Mourinho’s starting 11 were South American, and Lucio, Brazil’s World Cup captain, now faces the interesting prospect in the final of playing against Bayern Munich, which traded him to Inter last summer.

Meanwhile, Bayern Munich learned Wednesday that it will have to do without French international Franck Ribery in the final after UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, imposed a three-match ban on the winger “for serious foul play.”

The Frenchman was red-carded in Bayern’s 1-0 semifinal victory over Lyon in Germany last week for a dangerous tackle on Lyon forward Lisandro.

Bayern said it would appeal the ruling.