| Alessandro del Piero of Juventus (left) and Barcelona’s Frank de Boer fight for the ball in their Champions League quarter final first leg tie in Turin Wednesday. (Reuters)
Milan: A 14th minute goal from Christian Vieri gave Inter Milan a 1-0 win over Valencia in the first leg of their Champions League quarter final on Wednesday.
Both teams were forced to play for over half an hour with 10 men after Valencia’s David Albelda and Inter’s Belozoglu Emre were sent off after an ugly clash. The Spaniards, who had been quiet up until the incident, piled on the pressure in the latter stages as they searched, in vain, for an equaliser and a vital away goal.
Inter take a slender advantage with them into the second leg in Spain in a fortnight but Valencia, runners-up in the Champions League in 2000 and 2001, will certainly feel they are capable of turning the tie around.
It was no coincidence that Valencia enjoyed so much possession in the final half hour as the red cards had robbed Inter of their most influential figure in the little Turk Emre.
The former Galatasaray schemer set up Vieri in the 11th minute, which the burly striker blasted straight at Valencia keeper Santiago Canizares, and then he had a big hand in the goal.
Running on to a pass from Francesco Coco, Emre broke to the byline and Hernan Crespo flicked his cross into the path of Vieri, whose diving header flew past Canizares.
Valencia might have equalised in the 38th minute when Albelda’s low shot forced Inter keeper Francesco Toldo into a full stretch save — a warning to Inter of things to come.
What had been a surprisingly low key game turned nasty though in the 57th minute when in an off-the-ball incident Albelda kicked Emre and the Turk reacted angrily, confronting the Spaniard and attempting to headbutt him.
After a scuffle involving at least 10 players, German referee Markus Merk dismissed the pair.
The San Siro crowd rained plastic bottles and fruit down from the stands towards Albelda as he headed for the tunnel but thankfully the mood on the pitch was calmer.
Francisco Rafete fired a shot just wide of Toldo’s post and then Pablo Aimar jinked into the penalty area before firing in a low shot that the Inter keeper did well to save at his near post.
Inter coach Hector Cuper had made a surprising team selection leaving out Italy defender Fabio Cannavaro and Uruguayan striker Alvaro Recoba, bringing back centre half Marco Materazzi and Crespo, who were both returning from injury layoffs.
But Cannavaro was called on seven minutes from the end, replacing a tired Crespo and adding an extra man to an under-pressure defence as Inter clung to their lead.
There was more controversy at the end when Aimar went down inside the area under a challenge from Okan Buruk but Merk ruled that the Argentine had dived and instead of a penalty the Valencia forward got a yellow card.
Inter coach Hector Cuper is optimistic of his team’s chances of reaching the last four for the first time. Cuper, though, is under no illusions that Inter would need to be at their very best in the return game on April 22nd at the Mestalla stadium he knows so well from his time in charge of Valencia.
“It is still open but I am an optimist so I will say we have a 100 percent chance. That doesn’t mean it will be easy of course,” said the Argentine.
Cuper said the sending off of Belozoglu and Albelda helped to turn the flow of the game towards the Spaniards.
“We lost a player who was keeping the ball for us and creating, while they lost a defensive marker — so it was worse for us,” he said.
“From then on we weren’t able to keep the ball and hit them on the break. We played too deep towards the end of the game but didn’t give them much in the way of chances.
“We defended very well but we lacked a bit in terms of ball possession. I can’t say I am delighted but we have given ourselves an important opportunity for the second leg.”
The Italians came in for heavy criticism after they gave up a two-goal lead to draw 3-3 with AS Roma in Serie A on Sunday, but Cuper said the team had bounced back well from that setback.
“I saw a good and determined side that had certainly recovered from the Roma game,” he said.
Inter captain Javier Zanetti agreed.
“That was an excellent response after what happened against Roma,” said the Argentine defender.
“We have beaten a very good side who didn’t give us much space to play in. It is a good sign for us but we know it won’t be easy in Spain — it will be another battle.”
Inter have produced some of their best displays away from home in the Champions League this season and Zanetti said that might well be the case in Valencia.
“They need to score and they will need to open up and come at us,” he said. “That could leave us the space we like to exploit in the break.”
Inter reached the semi-finals of the European Cup in the 1980-81 season when they lost to Real Madrid, but have failed to get into the last four since the Champions League started in the 1992-93 season. (Reuters)