By Richard Martin
MILAN, Nov 6 (Reuters) - Barcelona qualified for the knockout stage of the Champions League on Tuesday after a compelling 1-1 draw away to Inter Milan as a late leveller from Mauro Icardi ended the Catalans’ perfect record in this season’s competition.
Former Barca youth player Icardi swivelled to smash the ball into the net in the 87th minute not long after Brazilian Malcom appeared to have snatched a late winner for Barca by scoring his first goal for the club moments after coming off the bench.
Barca were still without talismanic figure Lionel Messi through injury but were the better side for most of a game that was high on intensity but lacking in quality until an electrifying final 10 minutes at a rocking San Siro.
Barca top Group B with 10 points after four games; Inter are second with seven, while Tottenham Hotspur are third on four and PSV Eindhoven bottom, and out of the competition, with one.
“Our aim when we came here was to qualify, and ideally as group leaders by winning the game, and we did everything possible to do that,” Barca coach Ernesto Valverde told a news conference.
“We did everything well, from pressing high and combining well. We just lacked a little when it came to finishing chances in the area.
“We were also against an Inter side that have earned many points this season. But we’re happy because our first objective was to qualify, and we’ve done that.”
Barca were famously beaten 3-1 by Jose Mourinho’s Inter in the semi-finals in 2010 and had not won on any of their previous six visits to Italy.
But they coped well with the home side’s initial high pressing, thanks to the composed passing of midfielder Arthur Melo, and soon began to dominate.
Luis Suarez nearly scored what would have been a marvellous goal after controlling a high ball with his chest but sent his attempted chip inches wide of the top corner of the goal.
Ivan Rakitic had also come close to finding the opener in the first period and was guilty of a glaring miss after the interval when he had only goalkeeper Samir Handanovic to beat but fired straight at the body of the Slovenian.
Brazilian Malcom had featured little for Barca since signing from Bordeaux in the summer but thrust himself into the limelight less than two minutes after replacing the ineffective Ousmane Dembele, controlling a pass from Philippe Coutinho and drilling the ball under the diving Handanovic.
Barca were on their way to a first win in Italy since beating AC Milan at the San Siro in November 2011, which would also have seen them seal top spot in the group, but the ruthless Icardi had the final say against the club that let him go as a teenager.
“Barcelona’s goal was unexpected, as it looked like the game would end goalless, but the reaction of my players was fundamental,” Inter coach Luciano Spalletti said.
“Barcelona could have scored more, but the (Inter) team played with courage and had the attitude that the crowd demanded, so we’re happy about that.”
Barca could still celebrate qualifying for the knockout stage for a 15th consecutive season, however, and they will clinch top spot if they win away to PSV Eindhoven in their next European fixture. (Reporting by Richard Martin, Editing by Neville Dalton)