Barcelona stepped back from the edge but still stare into the abyss. A late goal from Robert Lewandowski, his second of a dramatic night, keeps them in the Champions League – but only just and probably not for long. At 3-2 down, Robin Gosens having seemingly slipped in the knife with a minute to go, they were into the 92nd when the Pole produced a superb header to put them level against Internazionale and give them the tiniest glimmer of hope. Their fate is not in their own hands – and to judge by the way they defended here that might not be the best place for it anyway – but they are not finished. Not yet, anyway.
This was a wild match, a glorious game of excellence and errors, with an even wilder finish. From 1-0 up through Ousmane Dembélé’s first-half goal to 2-1 down with strikes from Nicolò Barella and the hugely impressive Lautaro Martínez; from 2-2 via Lewandowski’s first equalizer with eight minutes left, and desperately chasing the winner that would have changed everything, to 3-2 down and then 3-3 in three minutes, Barcelona were left breathing, if barely.
“Qualification? It’s not done yet, ”Barella said, although he knows it is close. As for Xavi Hernández, he was using the past tense to refer to this season’s Champions League and lamenting errors committed in Munich and Milan, and again here. These were especially grave. “This competition has been very cruel to us,” he said after a brilliant game left his team in a bad place. It could even have been worse: having equalized for a second time they almost lost it again, Kristjan Asllani gifted an almost implausibly clear opportunity. Somehow, he was denied by an astonishing save from Marc-André ter Stegen.
Had that last one gone in, Inter would have been through and Barcelona would have been out with two games to go. That remains the likely outcome, but they must go on. Xavi’s team have to win their final two games, against Viktoria Plzen and Bayern Munich, and hope Inter do not win either of theirs.
At the end, everyone was exhausted, including the 92,302 who witnessed this, destiny changing by the second, the story refusing to be written. So much had happened from the first chance, when Martínez struck the side-netting in the sixth minute to Asllani’s shot 90 minutes later. That those both fell to Inter, despite Barcelona’s determination to pursue the victory, offered a compelling portrait. Barcelona were vulnerable and ultimately complicit in their demise. Gerard Piqué and Sergio Busquets felt the glare of the spotlight trained on them.
Denzel Dumfries was denied by Ter Stegen and Edin Dzeko had hit the bar at one end, while Lewandowski saw a header cleared off the line and Raphinha volleyed over at the other before the opening goal. Raphinha and Sergi Roberto created the opening for Dembélé, who sprinted in to score and didn’t stop running until he had reached the touchline and was in Xavi’s arms. That was five minutes before the break; five minutes after it, Inter were level.
A speared pass caught Piqué playing everyone onside. Worse, not only did he step up late, he raised his hands and ducked to see the ball through, unaware of the danger. Barella, suddenly alone at close range, controlled, turned and scored and so the urgency returned, the game opening up. This was a lot of fun – or would have been had not so much depended on it.
Opportunities appeared all over the place: Lewandowski volleyed over, Ter Stegen saved from Alessandro Bastoni, Marcos Alonso had to rescue Piqué. When Busquets gave the ball away and Hakan Calhanoglu struck another long diagonal, Martínez stepped away from Eric García and struck a shot that flew in off both posts.
Barcelona threw everything at this now. They had to. Frenkie de Jong, Alejandro Balde, Ansu Fati, Franck Kessié and Ferran Torres were all sent on. Lewandowski found the net but it was ruled out for offside, and was denied by André Onana. Dembélé shot wide. Time raced and so did they, Balde bombing up to deliver for Lewandowski’s deflected shot to make it 2-2, setting up a wild finish. Barcelona pushed but were caught again in a manner so easy it hurt, Onana’s long goalkick sending Inter straight into the other area where Gosens scored. It looked all over and, although Lewandowski scored once again for Barça to cling on to life, it probably is.